News Release

Exploring the association between student-college match and student outcomes over time

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Educational Research Association

Study: "Exploring the Association Between Student-College Match and Student Outcomes Over Time"
Author: Amanda M. Cook (Northwestern University)

This study will be presented today at the AERA 2021 Virtual Annual Meeting.
Session: Nuances and Challenges to Traditional Notions of College Success
Date/Time: Saturday, April 10, 10:40 a.m. - 12:10 p.m. ET

Main Findings:

Over the past 20 years, bachelor's degree completion rates for students who overmatch (i.e., attend colleges that may appear too academically selective for them) have improved substantially. Over the same time period, bachelor's degree completion rates for students who undermatch (i.e., attend colleges that appear too academically unselective for them) and match (i.e., attend colleges that appear to be good academic fits) have remained stable.

When the analysis is restricted to students with relatively high academic qualifications who begin their college careers at four-year institutions, matched and overmatched students' graduation rates improve over time, but undermatched students' do not.


A substantial body of research has demonstrated a link between student-college match and student outcomes, including graduation and post-college employment and earnings. Most studies on this topic find that students who undermatch are significantly less likely to complete a bachelor's degree than similar students who match or overmatch.

However, there has been little prior research on whether this association has changed over time. This study analyzed change over time in student outcomes by student-college match. It is the first to do so using data on a recent cohort of college students (i.e., students who started college after 2010).

The study used nationally representative data from the National Center for Education Statistics on three cohorts of first-time college students--those who began college in 1995, 2003, and 2011. The author looked at 25,020 individuals from these three samples of first-time college students for six years after their initial enrollment in college.

Undermatched students' graduation rates decreased slightly from 53 percent (1995 cohort) to 50 percent (2011 cohort). Matched students' graduation rates also decreased slightly, from 45 percent to 43 percent. By contrast, overmatched students' graduation rates increased substantially, from 55 percent to 65 percent.

When the sample is restricted to students with relatively high academic qualifications who start their college careers at four-year institutions, matched and overmatched students' graduation rates improve over time, but undermatched students' do not. For matched students from the 2011 cohort, the odds of graduating are 1.7 times higher than for their 1995 counterparts.

Similarly, for overmatched students from the 2011 cohort odds of graduating are 1.5 times higher than for their 1995 counterparts.

The study found that only a small portion of the improvement in overmatched students' graduation rates can be explained by changes over time in their academic qualifications, demographic characteristics, or college destinations.

"Undermatched students are consistently less likely to graduate, and overmatched students are consistently more likely to graduate, than matched students," said author Amanda M. Cook, a doctoral student at Northwestern University. "This reinforces prior research that, regardless of academic preparation and demographic characteristics, students' likelihood of graduating tends to improve when they attend more selective colleges."

"Recent pressure to improve graduation rates may have encouraged colleges to direct to direct more resources toward students who are struggling academically or students who enter colleges with lower academic qualifications than their same-college peers," said Cook. "If this is true, then overmatched students would be most likely to benefit. Matched students could also benefit from these policies if they were targeted widely enough."

"The study findings show that student-college match has become an increasingly important predictor of student success in recent years," Cook said. "This highlights the continued importance of programs and interventions to reduce the prevalence of undermatching, particularly for students from low-income, first-generation, and rural backgrounds."


To request a copy of the working paper, or to talk to the study author, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, cell: (202) 288-9333; Tong Wu, Communications Associate,, cell: (202) 957-3802

About AERA

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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