Obama Seeks to End “Undermatching”

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by David Pluviose

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of college presidents, federal, state and local policymakers and a host of other higher education stakeholders gathered at the White House yesterday for a College Opportunity Summit hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. In his prepared remarks, President Obama stressed the need to connect high-potential underprivileged students with institutions of higher learning.

“Unfortunately, today, only 30 percent of low-income students enroll in college right after high school and, far worse, by their mid-twenties, only nine percent earn a bachelor’s degree,” Obama said. “So if we as a nation can expand opportunity and reach out to those young people and help them not just go to college, but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect. There is this huge cohort of talent that we’re not tapping.”

Morehouse University President John Wilson, who noted that the college was in attendance to learn about preparing underprivileged Black males for the college experience, said Morehouse “has something to teach, because this is a meeting about a lot of colleges and universities in this country doing what Morehouse, Spelman and other HBCUs have been doing for a long time. …One of the issues is a lot of what we’re doing is not clear enough to other people to be recognized as a best practice.”

In a morning panel discussion titled, “Enrolling More Low-Income Students,” College Board President David Coleman was passionate about the need to expand college access for underprivileged minority students. Along with the SAT, the College Board also runs the Advanced Placement program, which is widely believed to give enrolled students a leg up on college degree attainment.

“Some of you may have noticed that recently, AP Computer Science was given in several states, [but] in several states, not one girl, not one Black person, took AP computer science,” said Coleman, adding that the College Board could make the case that they are not responsible for such a statistic. However, “if it is not our fault, it is our problem. We cannot stand by in the face of this and we commit, more strongly, that we will take responsibility for changing these numbers.”

In another panel discussion, Dr. Debbie Bial, president and founder of the Posse Foundation, a college access and youth leadership development program, talked about the great success her program has seen in helping disadvantaged college students persist, perform and graduate. Posse’s mission is to identify students who may “undermatch” and place them in “posses” of 10 students at some of the most selective colleges in the nation.

“The expectation of the kids from the general public are not that high … but this is an unbelievably selective program,” Bial said, adding that the average 1050 SAT score of Posse students is well below the 1300 or 1400 scores of their non-Posse peers at some of the nation’s most selective institutions. However, these standardized test scores belie the true potential of underprivileged Posse students, who perform “as well as the general student body, and sometimes better.”

The anti-affirmative action push of late has been propelled in part by scholars like UCLA’s Richard Sander, who have long argued that affirmative action leads to a “mismatch” of underprepared minority students with academically rigorous colleges, where they end up struggling at.

Recent research conducted by Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and the University of Virginia’s Sarah Turner received attention at the summit; they have found that only a small fraction of academically qualified, yet low-income minority students apply to selective colleges, relative to all high-achieving students. Thus, connecting these academically qualified minority students with top-tier colleges they typically avoid was a major emphasis of the summit.

Kenyon College President Sean Decatur, a 2007 Diverse Emerging Scholar, says he welcomed the open discussion of undermatching at the summit.

“With the right systems of support and mentoring and networking on campus” underprivileged  “students [can] actually do as well, if not better, than many of those students overall,” Decatur said. “To me, that’s the big piece of the undermatching story—that many students have the potential to succeed on our campuses [but] are sometimes either worried about making that first step themselves or are discouraged from doing so. So we need to see what we can do to work against that.”

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