Undermatching and Overreaching

Michael Sorrell

Michael Sorrell

This blog, while inspired by Paul Tough’s recent article in the New York Times, is really in response to the growing chorus of people lamenting over so-called “undermatching” in higher education.  Undermatching is the latest higher education cause du jour.  It is based upon the idea that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds are being ill-served by matriculating at less prestigious colleges and universities and therefore, should scale up and attend more celebrated ones.  Undermatching advocates, who coincidentally all seem to either be employed by or graduated from these more celebrated colleges and universities, believe that if these bright students would opt for better schools, their lives will be immeasurably improved.

There are innumerable flaws in the undermatching argument.  However, this article is not about exposing those deficiencies or questioning the sincerity of this new fascination with economically deprived smart students.  Rather, as the president of one of those colleges that allegedly does irreparable harm to students (which is so insulting a charge that it merits a column itself), I have decided to venture in another direction and offer my uptown peers some friendly advice on how to succeed in the land of under-resourced students.

As is often the case when people attempt to start revolutions from above, the current school of thought completely misses the root of the problem. As Tough’s article highlights, when about a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24 and almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile finish their degrees by that age, the issue is not where smart students are opting to attend college. The reality that too few people want to admit is that family wealth (or lack thereof) matters when it comes to college completion.

Therefore, in the interest of redirecting this fledgling revolution, I have channeled Occam’s Razor and created a simplified list of tenets to guide my medallion friends as they chart the new, unfamiliar terrain of under-resourced communities. These principles are based on the premise that you cannot lead people you do not love and you certainly should not educate students whom you do not know:

  1. Recruit under-resourced men and women as students the same way your coaches recruit them as athletes. Coaches are masterful at immersing themselves in the lives of their star recruits by cultivating relationships with the athlete-student’s parents, significant others, favorite teachers, and other key influencers. In order to help students from under-resourced communities excel on your campuses, someone from your institution better have the ability to access such relationships. Doing so will determine whether the student survives their first speed bump on your campus.
  2. You are not just their college; you are now their surrogate parent.  Under-resourced communities are rife with failing and dying institutions. Perhaps none more so than the two parent household.  In many instances, the only healthy environment a student may see comes from their high school. In the absence of stable family lives, high school principals, counselors, and teachers become surrogate mothers and fathers.  Therefore, if your staff thinks their jobs are solely to ensure these students master academic subject matter, you have already failed them.  You will need to establish a robust support system that includes providing academic, emotional, and financial resources when necessary.
  3. Say good-bye to your U.S. News & World Report ranking.  One of the reasons why less prestigious schools do not fare well in these rankings is we understand that we cannot serve two masters. If given a choice between a ranking and taking a chance on helping young men and women change their lives forever, we will always choose the latter.  When the rubber meets the road, which will you choose?
  4. Be sincere. Real recognizes real.  If you do not know what this means, find someone who does – quickly.

By elevating undermatching into the national consciousness, you have signaled to scores of under-resourced students that your colleges and universities will properly care for them.  Successfully integrating them into your affluent environments will require a complete cultural, philosophical, and pedagogical shift. Are you ready?

Michael J. Sorrell is president of Paul Quinn College and a member of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions’ Advisory Board

[A similar version of this post was published in The Dallas Morning News on May 28, 2014]