Impressive gains against ‘undermatching’

July 28, 2020

Yearlong comprehensive program for high-achieving, lower-income students leads underrepresented groups to top-ranked colleges and universities.

Contact: Ron Mackovich,

They are extremely motivated and accomplished, yet economic disadvantages keep them from aiming as high as they should. It’s a problem known as “undermatching” among some high school students applying for college, and research shows it can make it harder to graduate on time.

A free USC college preparatory program called Bovard Scholars is tackling this issue and has earned an impressive track record in just a few years: 98% of those reporting from the most recent cohort have earned full tuition scholarships, while 77% landed slots at highly selective colleges and universities.

Osvaldo Cabrales, headed for Yale, is one of them.

“Yale is paying for most of it,” he said. “If you’re low income and high achieving, private universities really want you there. A school like that could cost $70,000 a year, and they might give you $65,000. On top of financial aid, I received two scholarships for housing and expenses, including two round trips home each year.”

The reasons highly qualified students shy away include under-resourced high schools, where graduation rates are low, advisers are stretched thin and few students apply to college at all. Some high achievers believe admission to well-known selective colleges is unattainable and unaffordable, unaware of their financial aid options.

USC’s college prep program — launched four years ago and administered by USC Bovard College — includes individual academic and admissions coaching, personalized test preparation and guidance with financial aid, scholarships, career exploration and leadership development. Scholars come from all over the United States.

The yearlong initiative normally begins with a three-week summer intensive on the USC campus that is designed to make scholars feel at home, though that part of the program is online this year due to the pandemic.

“We designed Bovard Scholars not just to help low-income students get into top-tier schools but to help them thrive once they are there,” said Anthony Bailey, founding dean of USC Bovard College and its signature program. “That includes giving them exposure to professionals and experts in their fields and connecting their academic pursuits to future careers.

“Whether they choose USC or another elite school, they are well-prepared to embrace the opportunities that will come their way.”

Clearing the way to elite institutions

Just over a quarter of the third cohort, which includes 119 students, is attending USC.

“Our college access program is unique because we have full access to all USC has to offer, yet we’re helping students find, apply and attend competitive colleges and universities across the country that are a fit for them, not just USC,” said Jennifer Colin, executive director of Bovard Scholars and summer programs. “We fully leverage the university’s resources to connect, inspire and support our scholars’ current and future selves.”

The program starts by helping scholars feel at ease with college, then follows through with a full year of admissions coaching. Since Bovard Scholars began in 2017, it has helped almost 400 enter highly selective colleges and universities, such as Cornell, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Baylor and Columbia universities.

Over 80% of Bovard Scholars are first-generation college students. Minority groups are well-represented; 49% are Latinx and 18% are Black.

The Bovard Scholars program is provided at no cost to participants.

Image: K Selnick