In Search of a Match

A Guide for Helping Students Make Informed College Choices

By D. Crystal Byndloss, Rebecca Coven, Yana Kusayeva, Christine Johnston, Jay Sherwin

This guide has been updated to reflect changes in the FAFSA requirements that went into effect as of October 2016.

This guide is designed for counselors, teachers, and advisers who work with high school students from low-income families and students who are the first in their families to pursue a college education. It offers strategies for helping these students identify, consider, and enroll in “match” colleges — that is, selective colleges that are a good fit for students based on their academic profiles, financial considerations, and personal needs. Many of the suggestions in this guide are based on insights and lessons learned from the College Match Program, a pilot program that MDRC codeveloped with several partners and implemented in Chicago and New York City to address the problem of “undermatching,” or what happens when capable high school students enroll in colleges for which they are academically overqualified or do not apply to college at all.

The College Match Program placed “near-peer” advisers — trained advisers who are recent college graduates — in low-income high schools, where they delivered crucial information, supported students as they navigated the college and financial aid application process, and helped students and their parents make informed decisions about college selection and enrollment. Over a four-year period, the program served approximately 1,200 students.

Based on encouraging outcomes from the Chicago and New York pilots, this publication distills some of the most important lessons from the College Match Program into a brief, practical guide to help educators explore ways to adopt a “match” approach in their own schools and communities. The key lessons of the College Match Program, which are reflected in this guide, are that students are willing to apply to selective colleges when:

  • They learn about the range of options available to them.

  • They engage in the planning process early enough to meet college and financial aid deadlines.

  • They receive guidance, support, and encouragement at all stages.

Informed by those key lessons, the guide tracks the many steps in the college search, application, and selection process, suggesting ways to incorporate a match focus at each stage: creating a match culture, identifying match colleges, applying to match colleges, assessing the costs of various college options, selecting a college, and enrolling in college. Because many students question their ability to succeed academically or fit in socially at a selective college, and because they may hesitate to enroll even when they receive good advice and encouragement, the guide offers tips and strategies to help students build the confidence they need to pursue the best college education available to them. Each section also suggests tools and resources in the form of websites and printed materials that counselors, advisers, and students can use, as well as case studies to illustrate the experiences of College Match participants throughout the process.

Online Tools from MDRC:

Updated Resources (as of April 2020)

Some of the links to resources cited in the guide, published in 2016, are out of date or the resources are no longer available. Here are some updated links:

Byndloss, D. Crystal, Rebecca Coven, Yana Kusayeva, Christine Johnston, and Jay Sherwin. 2015. In Search of a Match. New York: MDRC.