Far too often, high-achieving underrepresented students graduate from high school and end up attending colleges that don’t offer learning opportunities commensurate with their academic profiles and potential.

This phenomenon, known as “undermatch,” results in more high-achieving minority students attending institutions with lower completion rates and can reduce these underrepresented students’ opportunities to realize their dreams and close persistent wealth gaps between different populations. 

In a new podcast, the winner of the University of Washington College of Education’s Gordon C. Lee Outstanding Dissertation Award, Rhoan Garnett (PhD ‘19), discusses findings from his exploration of how to better support college access for young people from underrepresented backgrounds.

Garnett noted that while one in six white and one in four Asian college students attend a highly selective institution, only one in 25 Latinx and one in 20 black students will do so. In large part, he said, that’s a result of underrepresented students having fewer reference points for college and, in particular, highly-selective institutions.

“Relationships are really the key,” Garnett said. “If students are given access to the necessary information about the college process, understand the importance of their respective college choices in their future success, are partnered with adults who can help them navigate the process, and have access to systems at the school and district level to make the process more transparent, students will make better college choices that will lead to higher graduation rates and more and better professional opportunities.”

Garnett also examined the role that community-based organizations can play in supporting underrepresented students in the college choice process. The relationships fostered by a CBO’s interactions with first-generation, low-income students of color likely to undermatch — which increased access to college-going resources and norms — ultimately led students to consider institutions that better matched their academic profile.

Scaling the impact of a CBO is costly, however, and Garnett is currently pursuing the development of a mobile app that would make it easier for high-achieving students of color to learn about and match with colleges where they can maximize their potential and opportunities.

“We need to find a way to personalize the process for more students,” Garnett said. “The hope is [the app] also will help counselors within schools. That it’s something counselors can have when they’re sitting with students and families and having a conversation about colleges.”

Subscribe to the UW College of Education on SoundCloud to listen to more interviews with researchers, practitioners, community leaders and policymakers who are working to transform inequitable systems of education and make learning come alive for all students.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications