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Dream Big: The Risk of College Undermatch

In October 2022, Megan Thee Stallion hosted Saturday Night Live the week before Chicago Scholars’ annual Onsite College and Leadership Forum. In a brilliant sketch, SNL spoofed inspirational urban educational dramas and the racism underlying many adults’ approaches to under-resourced students. In the sketch, Ego Nwodim portrays a substitute teacher determined to uplift her new students, saying: “You are not dumb…Maybe everyone in your life thinks it’s high school, then the streets, then prison. But not me…Now don’t be embarrassed, how many of you can read?” Puzzled student Megan Thee Stallion jumps in, explaining, “Miss, this is an honor’s level physics class…this is a STEM school. We all had to take a college-level test to get in here.”  

While we can laugh when stereotypes are lampooned on late night television, in the real world, these biases have consequences for high achieving students. Nationally, first generation college students are significantly under-represented at selective colleges. They are also less likely to graduate than their non-first-generation peers. At Chicago Scholars, we recruit academically ambitious first-generation and low-income students to be the first in their families to complete college and become Chicago’s next generation of leaders. Scholars are highly capable students, with an average high school GPA of 3.6 and many taking rigorous high school courses, including AP classes, IB curriculum, and credit-bearing college courses. More than 90% of Scholars are students of color. 

Through our annual Onsite College and Leadership Forum, Chicago Scholars’ students (whom we call Scholars) are some of the first students in the country to apply and be admitted to the nation’s top universities. Academic match, or – meaning the student’s academic qualifications as compared to a school’s rigor and selectivity,is a key pillar of our college counseling curriculum. Given our Scholars’ high academic potential, we strongly discourage “under matching,, meaning attending a college whose academic rigor and admissions standards are significantly below the student’s qualifications. To evaluate Scholars’ college lists, we use an adapted match rating system that was initially developed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the To and Through Project. The rating takes into consideration the real admissions rates of CPS students at each institution compared to the students’ high school GPA and standardized test scores. 

Those who don’t work in college access spaces might be tempted to ask, “What is the harm in undermatching? Shouldn’t we encourage students to apply where they are guaranteed to get in?” Data on our Scholars’ success demonstrates exactly the harm of undermatching: The more selective the college a Scholar attends, the more likely they are to graduate. 

The following table shows the graduation rate of Chicago Scholars by the competitiveness rating of the college: 

Table 1:  

College Competitiveness Rating  Graduation Rate of Matriculating Scholars 
CS Most Competitive  85% 
Most Competitive  87% 
Highly Competitive  76% 
Very Competitive  64% 
Competitive  58% 
Less Competitive  61% 


Nearly all Scholars are a match for “highly competitive” or “most competitive” institutions. While some students may be drawn to less competitive institutions for personal or financial reasons, they are much less likely to be successful there. An analysis by Brookings found this same pattern for first- generation students nationwide. While first-generation students at all types of institutions had lower graduation rates than their non-first gen peers, the graduation gap between the two groups grows wider as schools grow less selective.  

Undermatching also increases the risk that a student will transfer or stop out entirely, making it much less likely they will graduate on time: 83% of Scholars who remain at one institution graduate with a Bachelor’s degree within 6 years, compared to just 39% of those who transfer. 

Table 2: 

Competitiveness Rating  Scholar Transfer Rate 
CS Most Competitive  2% 
Most Competitive  7% 
Highly Competitive  10% 
Very Competitive  19% 
Competitive  23% 
Less Competitive  22% 
Noncompetitive (2-year)  50% 


Our data show that few Scholars transfer out of academic match or reach institutions. Yet the risk of a transfer increases the less rigorous the institution. Scholars are least successful at open enrollment institutions, particularly 2-year colleges. Most Scholars who begin at a 2-year institution do not earn a Bachelor’s or even Associate’s degree. Instead, these students – many of whom succeeded in college-level coursework throughout high school – stop out of higher education entirely. 

There are several causes underling this trend. In general, more competitive institutions have higher overall graduation rates. These institutions are also more likely to have endowments and other financial resources to support low-income students. It is also possible that students see more value in the coursework and on-campus experience of more competitive institutions.  

Our data also demonstrate that Scholars are more successful when they leave home. Overall, 81% of those who attend college out of state graduate on time, compared to 72% who remain in Illinois. That is why we encourage all Scholars to apply to at least one out of state college. An important factor behind this gap is that Scholars are unlikely to undermatch out of state. Those who leave Illinois tend to enroll at rigorous colleges, whereas those who stay in Chicago or attend a public university elsewhere in Illinois are likely to undermatch. While leaving home can be challenging, ultimately students are more successful as a result.  

Let’s not be like Nwodim’s substitute in the SNL sketch, whose classist biases limited the potential she saw in each student. That sketch closes with the increasingly vocal students pressing Nwodim’s character on her racist assumptions until finally she pulls the fire alarm to flee the classroom (unlikely for the real-life Nwodim, who holds a STEM degree from University of Southern California). As our Class of 2028 prepares for Onsite this year, we want them to dream big and showcase their talents to the world. Of the more than 600 high school seniors that will interview with colleges at Navy Pier on October 24th, some are sure to be future political leaders, college faculty, c-suite executives, and entrepreneurs. College may be just one step on their leadership journey, but the choices students make this year can vault them to success later in life. Scholars have already demonstrated intelligence, grit, and leadership. Rather than limiting their college options, it is up to us to nurture their dreams. 



  • Academic Performance and Adjustment of First-Generation Students to Higher Education: A Systematic Review by Maria Jose Lopez, Maria Veronica Santelices, and Carmen Maura Taveras,%3B%20Engle%20%26%20Tinto%2C%202008%3B,%3B%20Engle%20%26%20Tinto%2C%202008%3B