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Big Frog in a Small Pond: Undermatching Status, College major, and Their Influence on Early Career Earnings


Traditionally, colleges and universities have been expected to promote social mobility (Haveman & Smeeding, 2006). It has been widely recognized that higher education is one of the best investments an individual can make. Greater focus now has been placed upon where individuals actually went to college, instead of simply whether one went to college or not. The relationship between college selectivity and earnings has been demonstrated by the fact that higher selectivity is generally associated with higher earnings (Hoekstra, 2009; Beyond, Brewer, Eide , & Ehrenberg,1999). In addition to the fact that earnings are associated with college selectivity, the major field of study students choose is also influential. As a factor that has long been recognized, college major exerts great influence on college graduates‘ labor market outcomes (Rumberger &Thomas, 1993; Thomas 2003). However, there lacks empirical studies that explores the influence of postsecondary undermatching on students‘ labor market outcomes, and especially the different influence of undermatching in different academic field (STEM and non-STEM). Therefore it is essential to understand the role college major plays when studying the effect of undermatching on students‘ labor market outcomes.

Therefore, this study examines who, how and what of the relationship between undermatching and choosing a STEM major. The design of this study was guided by two sets of conceptual framework, including the college decision framework adapted from Perna (2006) and Iloh (2018), and human capital theory (Becker, 1975; Mincer, 1957). Guided by these two frameworks, the study conducted several multilevel analyses (HGLM, HLM), utilizing data from three sources, including the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS 2002), American Community Survey (ACS 2005), and Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS).

Findings reveal that the influence of undermatching on students‘ early career earnings does differ by academic major: for students choosing a non-STEM major, attending a less selective institution probably is not a good idea; however for students that chose a STEM major, sometimes being a ―big frog in small pond‖ might actually be beneficial economically. Still, considering the prevalent undermatching rate and low STEM rate, especially among underrepresented minority and low-income students, K-12 education and higher education stakeholders should make concerted effort to ensure that students attend higher education institutions that best fit them, and that higher education institutions provide sufficient resources for them to succeed. The study then concludes with recommendations for K-12 and higher education policy and practice.

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