Undermatching, when students attend post-secondary institutions which are less selective than their academic credentials would permit, is generally considered as an undesirable outcome because of the long-term consequences for students’ job opportunities and wages (Ovink et al. 2018), especially for low-SES students, who are more likely to undermatch (Bastedo and Jaquette 2011). However, there is a gap in the literature regarding the relation between undermatching and students’ subjective experiences during college, and its relation with SES. Studying adolescents’ subjective experiences during their years in college is important because of its consequences for college completion (Bowen et al. 2009), and because of the accumulating effects that both positive and negative experiences can have in their development toward adulthood (Yoshioka and Noguchi 2009). The literature suggests that when students are undermatched, the academic demands from their institutions are misaligned with their potential (e.g., Hoxby and Turner 2013), which may lead to less satisfaction with the academic environment. However, experiences of social mismatch and feeling ‘out of place’ when low-SES students enter the most selective institutions are well documented (Jury et al. 2017). The cultural codes in less selective institutions may match better with low-SES students than the cultural codes in highly selective institutions (Deutschlander 2017). Consequently, there may be a positive relation between undermatching and satisfaction with the social environment, but only among low-SES students.
In the present study, the relation between undermatching and satisfaction, and the moderating role of SES, was investigated with a large, representative Dutch dataset that includes information about student self-reported satisfaction and student characteristics such as age, motivation, and grades during high school (N = 21,452 respondents). Up till now, undermatching has been studied mainly in the U.S., where undermatching has to be estimated from institutions’ selectivity levels, and students’ eligibility to these institutions. Because there are many different ways to define these constructs, concerns have raised regarding comparability and accuracy of these estimations (Rodriguez 2015). In the Netherlands, both institutional selectivity and students’ qualifications are much easier to determine, leading to highly accurate and undebatable estimations of undermatching,
The study examined satisfaction among low-SES students all of whom are eligible for the most selective institutions, but who are either in the most selective institutions (match), or in less selective institutions (undermatch). To test whether any effects are specific to low-SES students, their satisfaction was compared with the satisfaction of high-SES students in both selective and non-selective institutions. In addition, it was examined whether these relations (both for low-and high-SES students) change throughout the four years in higher education. Because pre-existing differences may confound the relation between undermatching and satisfaction, propensity score matching (PSM) was applied to test the consequence of undermatching, excluding as much as possible the confounding influences of covariates.
The present study findings show that undermatching is related to less satisfaction with the academic and social environment, and that this relation becomes stronger toward the fourth year in higher education. The study did not provide any evidence showing that undermatching is related to more satisfaction among low-SES students. These results do not only suggest that there are no benefits for low-SES students related to undermatching, undermatching even seems to have costs in terms of less satisfaction with the social and academic environment during college, especially toward the later years in higher education.
Undermatching and academic and social satisfaction
The finding that undermatched student are less satisfied with the academic environment (i.e., the content and rigorousness of the educational program) is in line with literature that suggests that de demands from less selective institutions are misaligned with the capacities of undermatched students (Belasco and Trivette 2015). In less selective institutions, undermatched students are probably not maximizing their full potential (Hoxby and Turner 2013). Previous research has shown that students have higher chances of graduating if the quality level of their institution matches their observed skill levels (Light and Strayer 2000). The lower satisfaction after undermatching shown in the present study may be an important factor in the relation between undermatching and degree attainment.
The finding that low-SES students’ satisfaction with the social environment does not benefit from undermatching, indicates that there may also be a social mismatch when low-SES students attend less selective institutions in higher education. In the less selective institutions, the proportion low-SES students is higher than in the most selective institutions (Bastedo and Jaquette 2011) (i.e., 40% low-SES students in less selective tracks versus 25% low-SES students in the most selective tracks in the Netherlands; Dutch Inspectorate of Education 2018). As a consequence, cultural codes in less selective institutions may match better with low-SES students’ backgrounds (Walpole 2003). However, the results suggest that the larger proportion of other low-SES students seem not to elevate their satisfaction regarding experiences with the social environment. This finding may suggest a social mismatch in all higher education institutions, regardless of the level of selectivity. In addition, the finding that students who are undermatched, experience less satisfaction with the social environment, suggests that undermatching does not take along benefits in terms of satisfaction with social aspects of college, both for low- and high-SES students.
The finding that the negative relationship between undermatching and satisfaction (social and academic) seems to manifest in the later years in college, suggests that undermatching has especially consequences after students have integrated in their new college. When this negative relationship would have been strongest in their first year, this might have been related to a process of adjustment related to separation from the old situation and transition into the new college. However, the enhanced negative relationship after the phase of transition, seems to reflect how students feel about their situation once they adjusted. Although speculative, this finding may also predict a negative relationship between undermatching and satisfaction on the job market, after college.
The present study findings show that low-SES students seem not to benefit from undermatching in terms of satisfaction. Endogeneity could lead to an overestimation of the relation between undermatching and satisfaction. For example, students who are not motivated to enter higher education may be more likely to undermatch and to become dissatisfied. In addition, students who are less cognitively talented may be more likely to undermatch and become less satisfied during higher education. Nevertheless, because students with the same eligibility for the most selective institution were selected, and because PSM was applied to exclude the confounding effects of covariates, such as motivation for college and grades during high school, endogeneity is unlikely to explain the current findings.
These findings add to the body of research on the consequences of undermatching. Although there are several differences between the U.S. context and the European context in higher education, the basic principles underlying undermatching (i.e., students attend less selective institutions than their academic credentials would permit) are the same in many regards. First, both in the U.S. and in Europe, the eligibility for the most selective institutions depends on academic performance during middle adolescence. Second, an important similarity is that attending less selective institutions is on average related to less prestigious jobs and lower wages on the long term. Third, both in the U.S. and Europe, low-SES students tend to undermatch more than high-SES students. Fourth, both in the U.S. and in Europe, students’ years in college are usually spent during late adolescence, covering the same developmental stage toward early adulthood. Therefore, it is plausible that the results of the present study are generalizable to the U.S. context.
The present study extends the knowledge about the effects of undermatching by showing that also in the short term, during college, undermatching affects students’ well-being. These results are of important because of low-SES students’ higher likelihood to undermatch (Belasco and Trivette 2015). The less positive college experiences related to undermatching may reinforce educational disadvantage for students from low-SES backgrounds. First, the lower satisfaction may have negative consequences for their college completion (Ovink et al. 2018). Second, these enduring experiences of lower satisfaction during college increase the likelihood of encountering stressful experiences related to a low socioeconomic background (Wickrama et al. 2015). This accumulation of stressful experiences during adolescence can have detrimental consequences for health and well-being in adulthood (Wickrama et al. 2016), especially for social mobile adolescents (Miller et al. 2015; Wickrama et al. 2016). In addition, the finding that the negative relationship between undermatching and satisfaction enhances toward the later years in college, suggests that this relationship manifests after students’ integration in college. Although speculative, this finding may also suggest a negative relation between undermatching and job-satisfaction after graduation.
Clearly, these findings have also implications for the formulation of policies and programs for promoting social mobility. Undermatching arises during the transition from high school to the most selective institutions and is related to a wide range of barriers (Page and Scott-Clayton 2016). Traditionally, the knowledge deficit approach states that students’ choice to undermatch is a result of a lack of information about application processes and college costs. Research on college choice processes indeed shows that low-SES students’ tendency to undermatch is highly related to having less access to information about institutions compared to high-SES students; low-SES students are less likely to undermatch when they receive high-quality information about their possibilities (Hoxby and Avery 2013). However, even with access to ‘perfect information’, undermatching still occurs among low-SES students (Black et al. 2015). The preference approach to undermatch explains this tendency by differences between low- and high-SES students in factors that students take into account during their college decision-making, like geographic factors, college fit, and opinions of relatives and peers (Black et al. 2015; Tiboris 2014). From this perspective, it has been argued that undermatching can be the result of a well-informed, autonomous decision (Tiboris 2014). In sum, both the knowledge deficit approach and the preference approach suggest that it is important to offer low-SES students high-quality information during the transition to higher education. Policy on social equality has encouraged high schools to improve information during the college choice process. The present study indicates that low-SES students should also be informed about their higher risk on lower satisfaction during the later years in higher education when they are undermatched.
Despite the importance of these findings, the present study has several limitations. One limitation is that the data are cross-sectional, and therefore, it cannot with certainty be concluded whether the differences between the years are actually reflecting student development during these years. For example, students who are very dissatisfied may leave higher education, resulting in a biased estimation of satisfaction from year 1 to year 4. However, student drop-out peaks after the first year in higher education: 33% switches or drops out after the first year. Yet, among students who continue after their first year, 86% obtains their diploma (Dutch Inspectorate of Education 2018). Therefore, it is plausible that the data capture student development over years, especially in the later years of higher education when drop-out rates are low. However, longitudinal data are necessary to better map this development.
Moreover, although applying PSM in order to exclude confounding effects of covariates is a highly recommended method to approach the relation between undermatching and satisfaction as close as possible, there might be unobserved confounders. For example, personality traits may also partly determine whether students undermatch or match, and these were not measured. Therefore, despite the use of PSM methodology, it is important to remain cautious with causal interpretations.
Next, certain aspects of students’ experiences in college that may influence their satisfaction, such as the possibility to engage in collaborative learning activities or in extracurricular events, were not measured. Some recent studies with small samples of first students suggest positive effects of undermatching on college experiences among first-year ethnic minorities (Fosnacht 2014, 2015; Lowry 2017), because undermatched students engage more in active and collaborative learning activities in less selective institutions. Especially black students were found to be less affected or even to benefit from undermatching. Because of limitations in the dataset, it was not possible to study the role of these college experiences, nor ethnicity, conclusively. Therefore, it is possible that undermatching can contribute positively to students’ subjective experiences when institutions offer certain social activities.
Furthermore, the reason for students to undermatch may vary across students and affect satisfaction. For example, low-SES students are likely to undermatch for the reason that they can stay closer to their family and friends (Belasco and Trivette 2015). The motives for students to undermatch may moderate the negative relation between undermatching and satisfaction. In this study, the role of the reason to undermatch could not be tested because this was not measured in the dataset. Initial differences between matched and undermatched students, such as motives to undermatch or self-efficacy, although not of explicit interest in this study, are of potential interest in future research.