Undermatched is the term for students who go to a college that is less selective and elite than what they could get accepted to. If you could get into one of the 20 most selective colleges but don't apply to any of them, then you are undermatched. If you probably would not get accepted to any of those (and most of us can't), but could still be accepted to one of the 200 most selective colleges but don't apply, then you're still undermatched. It has to do with the difference between where you could be accepted to versus where you actually apply.
For the purpose of identifying undermatched students, most researchers rely on SAT and/or ACT scores because they're objective and standardized. Of course, there are people who have SAT scores as high as the average for some ultra-selective schools who still don't get accepted, and some who are at the bottom end for the SAT range who do get accepted. So it's not an exact science, but when you look at averages and large groups (there are over three million high school graduates a year), there are definite trends.
Undermatching is considered a social problem because it happens a lot more often with low-income students and minority students. That doesn't mean that every low-income or minority student is undermatched, or that undermatching doesn't happen with wealthy white students. But it happens a lot more often with low-income and/or minority students, and that adds up. One of the standard solutions to inequality and lack of diversity within centers of power (like Congress and corporate boardrooms) is access to higher education. But if low-income and minority students don't go to the better schools even when they're qualified, then that solution can't really work.
When it comes to undermatching, there are some things to keep in mind.
Some undermatching is natural. Not everybody is going to go to the most selective university they can get accepted to, and that's a good thing. Selectivity is not the only factor for choosing a school, and it should never be the most important factor. When we talk about undermatching as a problem, we don't really mean a student going to a somewhat selective four-year university when they could probably go to a highly selective four-year university. When we talk about it as a problem, we're usually talking about a student who could get accepted to--and thrive at--a somewhat or highly selective school who instead goes to a community college or doesn't even apply to college. That can be tragic for the individual student, and tragic for society as a whole, when the student doesn't live up to potential. Add to the mix that this issue overwhelmingly happens with low-income, minority, and/or first-generation college students, the people who have the most to gain from the upward social mobility of college, and it gets to be a major problem.
Undermatching can be really bad for you. It's tempting to think that going to a less-challenging school has a real advantage, because you can easily get a higher G.P.A. and easily graduate. There's the "Big Fish Small Pond" idea that you will be more successful by not going to the elite school. But in fact the graduation rates for undermatched students are much worse than for others. If you're an undermatched student, there's a really good chance you went to a high school with not enough challenging classes, not enough counseling support, and not enough resources for you to do well. Going on to a college that is also not challenging enough...with not enough support...and not enough resources...is not a recipe for success. As a rule of thumb, the more under-resourced and under-celebrated your high school is, the harder you should try to go to a college that is the opposite. By college resources I mean libraries, study abroad programs, internship opportunities, access to high-quality professors, and things like that. But by resources I also mean money. When you factor in financial aid, elite universities with big names and bigger price tags can often be more affordable for high-achieving, low-income students than their local state college.
Undermatching is not the same as discrimination. There are plenty of discrimination charges when it comes to college acceptances, but undermatching is different than that. Undermatching isn't when selective universities don't accept qualified students, but when qualified students simply don't apply. They don't apply because they don't understand the process, they don't realize they're qualified, they don't think they can afford it, or they don't think they're "college material." There are some ways colleges can work harder to fight undermatching, but most of the work has to be done at the high school level. Colleges don't usually accept people who don't apply.
The cost of going to college is often a major factor--more major than it should be. The financial aid process is daunting enough for people who get guidance on how to navigate it, and it's much more daunting to people who, for whatever reason, don't get that guidance. So many students don't apply to college, or to a college that's in line with their ability, because they see the prices and assume they can't afford it. But if you're a high-achieving, low-income student, then there are plenty of colleges who really want to help. One of the most famous and extreme examples is Harvard, where parents who earn less than $65,000 per year are expected to pay absolutely nothing for their child to attend. While not every school can afford to be quite that generous, most schools are also less selective. There are many, many high-quality schools that are willing to make their schools undermatched students, but the students have to know to ask for money. They do this by complete the FAFSA, but high-poverty school districts have lower FAFSA completion rates.
There are things individual students can do to help make sure they don't get undermatched.
Make sure you have an honest assessment of how high-achieving you are. Do you have high grades? Good. Are those high grades in the most rigorous classes available at your high school? Better. Do you also have high test scores, like the SAT, ACT, or AP exams? Even better.
If you're high achieving and low-income, or if you're high achieving and will be a first-generation college student, then you should aim high. Don't make a community college your first choice--or a choice at all--unless you have really strong reasons to do so.
Make sure you apply for financial aid. The FAFSA isn't the most straightforward piece of paperwork out there, but taking the trouble to get it done could end up being the most valuable thing you ever do in your life. Take it seriously.
Get help. Start with your school counselor. Look for an Independent Educational Consultant who does pro-bono (free) work for qualified students. Start browsing through college-advising websites like this one, this one, or this one.
Want to read more about undermatching? Try:
"The Missing Black Students," Inside Higher Ed
"When Disadvantaged Students Overlook Elite Colleges," The Atlantic
Is there another term you'd like to see in The Glossary? Let me know, and I'll explain it!