President Sorrell of Paul Quinn offers his view on ‘Under-matching’

Updated: 5/30/2014 5:34 PM CST BY TOM JOYNER FOUNDATION

‘Under-matching’ academic debate underserves students

By Michael J. Sorrell, President, Paul Quinn College

Dallas Morning News

Michael J. Sorrell , president, Paul Quinn College

May 28, 2014

Imagine a conversation that goes something like this: A young man is telling his barber that he has been accepted to Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Texas. The barber and everyone in earshot rightfully praises the young man for his remarkable accomplishment.

However, when the young man mentions that he is leaning toward attending the University of Texas, the entire barbershop wants to know how he could pick UT over two of the best schools in the world. They all point out that while UT was a good school, he could do better and was selling himself short. This goes on until the young man stands to leave, saying: “UT made me feel wanted, and Austin is close to my family so I can afford to come home on the weekends to help my mother. UT is where I am comfortable.”

The room falls silent as the door slowly swings behind him.

The under-matching phenomenon

Welcome to the phenomenon of under-matching. The concept is based on the idea that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds are being ill-served by matriculating at “less prestigious” colleges and universities. Under-matching proponents believe that the lives of low-income students would be immeasurably improved if these individuals could be taught to make different educational choices.

Beyond the incredibly paternalistic line of thinking this belief requires, and as my hypothetical case highlights, there are innumerable flaws in the under-matching argument. For example, who determines what school is the best fit for a student? The idea that anyone would think that UT is somehow not up to par and damaging its under-resourced students is a sample of the type of logic being applied nationally on this matter. UT is a university that produces many distinguished graduates. However, to some people the idea of turning down Cambridge for Austin would be irrational.

As is often the case when people attempt to start revolutions from above, the current under-matching argument misses the root of the problem. As a recent article by Paul Tough highlighted, 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. Given this data, it is clear that the crux of the issue is not where smart students are choosing to attend college. Rather, the real issue is that family wealth (or lack thereof) matters too much when it comes to college completion.

Recommendations for schools

Therefore, instead of belittling the hundreds of colleges and universities who have dedicated themselves to educating under-resourced students, perhaps the time has come for all of us to work together to address this issue. Embracing students from under-resourced communities is not easy and requires an institution to make a complete cultural, philosophical and pedagogical shift. In the spirit of teamwork, I have compiled the following list of recommendations for schools who are interested in serving this segment of the population and are unclear how to proceed:

1. Recruit under-resourced men and women as students the same way your coaches recruit them as athletes. Coaches are masterful at cultivating relationships with athlete-students and their key influencers. In order to help students from under-resourced communities excel, someone from your campus must have the ability to access such relationships.

2. You are now a surrogate parent. In many communities, the only healthy environment a student may see comes from his or her high school. In the absence of stable family lives, principals, counselors and teachers become surrogate parents. Therefore, your staff must do more than ensure the mastery of academic subject matter. Your school will need to establish a robust support system that provides academic, emotional and financial resources when necessary.

3. Be sincere. Real recognizes real. If you do not know what this means, find someone who does — quickly.

By elevating the idea of under-matching into the national consciousness, the higher-education community has signaled to scores of under-resourced students that all of the nation’s colleges and universities will now properly care for them. For everyone’s sake, I hope this is true.

Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell may be contacted at