Why College Match Matters

Former KIPP students on Graduation Day at Wake Forest University

By Craig Robinson, National Director of KIPP Through College, KIPP Foundation

Between now and May 1, nearly 3,000 KIPPsters will submit applications to colleges ranging from Syracuse University in NY to San Jose State University in CA, and everywhere in between. While there are many colleges to choose from, one of the most crucial decisions that will help these students reach college graduation is simply choosing to apply to the college that’s right for them.  

This year, the KIPP Through College team is focusing on a simple truth: “match matters.” A growing body of research into college success rates has shown that choosing the right school can make or break a student’s chances of graduating. This is especially true for students from low-income communities, and even more so for those who are the first in their families to go to college.

So what do we mean when we talk about finding the right school? Essentially, it’s about striking a balance between a student’s “head” and their “heart.” Part of it is considering the hard-and-fast numbers, which we call the “match” or “head” factors. These include:

  • Four-year and six-year graduation rates (both overall and for students from low-income backgrounds)
  • Under-represented, first-generation, or low-income student enrollment
  • Selectivity rate
  • Average financial aid package

And part of it is choosing attributes that appeal to a student’s personality and interests, which we refer to as the “fit” or “heart” factors. These include:

  • Geography
  • Campus size
  • Enrollment size
  • Academic offerings
  • Social atmosphere
  • Extracurricular opportunities

We have to consider all of these factors in our students’ college search. When we find a school that aligns with a student’s academic profile and interests as well as their personality and background, then we can feel confident about their chances for success.

Unfortunately, when it comes to finding their best match school, many first-generation college students sell themselves short. For example, many students assume they won’t get into highly selective schools, and limit their application list to less selective schools. In fact, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, more selective schools often have higher overall graduation rates, so that students who avoid applying to these schools are lowering their own chances of success.

So what can we advise our students to do to make sure they’re applying to their best match schools? Our KIPP Through College team has four recommendations:

  1. Know your numbers. A student’s high school GPA, SAT/ACT scores, AP and honors courses, and overall academic record can affect their chances of admission, as well as their likelihood of receiving merit-based financial aid. Encourage students to take an honest look at their grades and test scores, enroll in a rigorous college prep course load for junior and senior year, and help them start preparing early on for success in college applications.
  2. Build a smart wish list. Having a robust list of “likely (or safety),” “match,” and “reach” schools to apply to gives students more options and a greater chance of getting into the right school for them. Help students develop a “wish list” of at least nine schools – three in each category – starting as early as the junior year, and discuss with them the pros and cons of each school. Make sure that each of the schools on a student’s “wish list” has at least some attributes that would be right for the student. Show flexibility in revising the list so that it reflects a stronger prospect of colleges with historically higher than average graduation rates.
  3. Prepare for the cost of college. Higher education can be expensive, and affording it usually requires careful planning, including saving for college early on and applying for scholarships. Giving students the knowledge and tools they need to make informed decisions is crucial. Make affordability and financial aid a key part of the college conversation, and enlist both students and parents to plan for the possibilities of paying for their “right match” college.
  4. Get an early start. Getting applications in ahead of admission deadlines ensures access to the largest pool of aid and, in some cases, increased odds of acceptance. Applying early also allows students to discuss Early Decision and Early Action options with counselors.

When a student and a college are really compatible, the results can be life-changing. As we help our KIPPsters climb the mountain to and through college, we must always keep in mind that, yes, “match matters.”


We’ll be sharing more about our “match matters” work throughout the year on our blog. In the meantime, make sure to download our Four Keys to College Match if you’d like to share these recommendations with students and their families.

KIPP College Counselors: Make sure to check out the To and Through Toolkit available on Main Office.

This post was updated on November 18, 2015.