U-M asks, ‘Where are the poor kids?’

U-M

It may be a world-renowned university, but the University of Michigan has yet to figure out how to get more low-income students to enroll. The solution may come down to a one-word  marketing tweak: Free

What’s the cheapest college for poor students?

The public universities with the most low-income students aren’t the schools that are the cheapest for poor students to attend.

School Average net price % undergrads receiving
Pell grant
UM Ann Arbor $3,414 13
Lake Superior State $5,985 44
Michigan State $6,639 21
Northern Michigan $8,000 44
Ferris State $8,365 47
Oakland $8,445 35
UM Dearborn $8,612 44
Michigan Tech $8,975 24
UM Flint $10,526 55
Eastern Michigan $10,794 47
Wayne State $10,896 50
Grand Valley State $11,149 30
Central Michigan $11,507 34
Saginaw Valley State $12,508 39
Western Michigan $12,590 37

ANN ARBOR - There are a lot of numbers University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel can be proud of. The school consistently ranks in the top 25 in the world. It sweeps up the second-most research dollars in the nation ‒ about $1.4 billion a year. The school runs the sixth-ranked health system in the nation, is the third-largest employer in the state, and has 100 graduate programs ranked in the top 10 nationally.

But there’s one number the 59-year-old says keeps him up at night:

The percentage of low-income students enrolled at the Ann Arbor campus.

MORE COVERAGE: Text messages and rap videos. How the state is telling poor students they too can afford college. 

Despite being the cheapest public university for low-income students in the state, U-M has the lowest percentage of poor students of any Michigan university. In the 2014-15 school year, just 15 percent of U-M  undergraduates received federal Pell Grants, which are given to low-income students. The public university with the next-lowest share of Pell recipients was Michigan State University, at 21 percent.

Devin Raymond thought the University of Michigan would be too expensive for him to attend. Boy, was he wrong. (Courtesy photo)

Those figures have remained stubbornly steady over years, despite U-M aggressively increasing aid for low-income students.

On the one hand, U-M is different from other state schools. It’s admissions are among the most selective in the nation. Since low-income students, for a variety of reasons, tend to have lower test scores than their more affluent peers, they are less likely to meet U-M’s entrance standards. Still, other highly selective public universities around the nation have found ways to enroll a higher percentage of low-income students (At the University of California-Berkeley, 31 percent of students are low-income, roughly twice U-M’s rate).

U-M’s unsuccessful efforts to enroll more poor students does illustrate a larger issue faced by the state: the struggle to get more low-income students from high school graduation ceremonies to college campuses.

Despite statewide efforts both inside and outside state government, the college enrollment gap between poor and non-poor students hasn’t budged – a fact that has economic implications for Michigan.

Michigan has a lower percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher (27 percent) than the national average (30 percent). That’s critical because the average adult with a bachelor’s degree earns more than $800,000 more in their lifetimes than the average high school graduate. Increasing the percentage of Michigan adults with degrees increases money spent in the state economy and taxes collected for roads and schools.

Roughly 70 percent of children from middle- and upper-income Michigan families attend college. For the state to catch up with other states, it needs to get more low-income students onto college campuses. Currently, only half of low-income students enroll in college within six months of graduating high school.

College gap remains large

Despite efforts to ease college access to low-income Michigan students, the rate of college enrollment for poor residents hasn’t budged in recent years, and the enrollment gap between poor and non-poor students hasn’t narrowed either.

 

Source: Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information

U-M’s latest effort to get more poor students onto a campus, where the median student family income is north of $150,000, is a step forward in marketing, if not money.

The “Go Blue Guarantee,” announced this summer to great fanfare, offers free tuition for four years for Michigan students from families with household incomes under $65,000. That’s slightly above the median household income in the state, so half of Michigan families can send their kids to U-M tuition-free, if they gain admission.

“The part I like the best is being able to tell a junior high school student and their parents, ‘Work hard, take your studies seriously, and if you get into Michigan, Mom and Dad can afford it, because they’re not going to have to pay,” Schlissel said. “(We can) say that to half the students in the state, and to say to everybody else that we have very generous formulas that match the capacity of your family with the cost of education.”

The power of ‘free’

High-achieving low-income students don’t apply to highly selective colleges at the same rate as their equally accomplished, wealthier classmates, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. They are often unaware how affordable many “expensive” colleges can be to poor students; selective institutions often have larger endowments that can provide more financial aid.

The Go Blue policy, which begins in January 2018, is meant to increase that awareness.

The net cost of attending U-M, which includes tuition, room and board and books, already was under $4,000 a year for students from families earning $30,000 a year or less. That will remain virtually the same under the new policy.

Instead of more money, Go Blue banks on a different description of the school’s already generous financial aid, emphasizing the word “free.”

Let Schlissel explain:

“It puzzled me. We were quite confident that we weren’t getting applications from as many talented lower income students as we know exist in Michigan. Why is that? Why wouldn’t someone apply? We have this nice website and a financial aid calculator, and the messaging that says we give generous need-based aid.

“So we did an experiment. And the experiment we did is called the HAIL scholarship program and it’s still underway. The basic idea is to take the lower-income graduating high school students and divide them up into two groups. One group gets a letter saying ‘You’re a great student, please apply to the University of Michigan and we offer generous financial aid.’ The other group gets a letter saying ‘Your school and principal have identified you as an outstanding scholar. If you apply and get accepted to Michigan we’ll guarantee you a free four year tuition scholarship plus whatever other aid you qualify for.’

“That latter group, the application rate is 2 ½ times the former group. Two and a half times! These are changes you don’t see in the real world, right? So we went from 20-something percent of students applying with just a letter saying ‘You’re a great student, we give generous financial aid,’ to 68 or 70 percent of students applying when we say ‘If you get in, free tuition.’”

‘It was surreal’

Devin Raymond was one of the lucky high school seniors to get the version of the letter that emphasized the word “free.”

“My mom texted me when I was at cross-country practice. I told her she had to be wrong,” Raymond recalls. “I went home and Googled it. It was surreal.”

Raymond was a great student, with a 3.9 GPA and leadership positions at tiny Mason High School in Monroe County near Toledo. But over five years, no one had gone to U-M from his school district, where 47 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. And coming from a family of modest means, he didn’t think he could afford tuition there, so he wasn’t planning on applying.

The letter made him decide to take a shot, and he was admitted. He’s now a sophomore in communications. “I didn’t have to take out any loans last year and only a small loan this year,” Raymond said.

Raymond received the same amount of aid he would have received with or without the “free” letter, but he said he wouldn’t have applied without seeing that word.

“Despite how expensive they (U-M) are on paper, they have so much money, they can make it less expensive for those who need it,” Raymond said.

Narrowing the gap

Among Michigan’s graduating high school seniors, there was a 21-point college enrollment gap between poor and non-poor families in 2011; five years later, the gap was 22 points.

Sarah Anthony, deputy director of the Michigan College Access Network, an organization that works to improve college access in the state, said she’s convinced financial aid is only part of the problem.

“One of the issues we’ve noticed with both Promise zones (such as the Kalamazoo Promise, guaranteeing college tuition to most graduating seniors) and free tuition programs is that we get so focused on the cost of a college education, we miss the other challenges,” Anthony said.

“There are a lot of rural and urban students who don’t know the first thing about how to succeed in college. They’ll go on a field trip to the University of Michigan, and it’s like visiting a museum. They don’t picture themselves being part of it. There are too many communities where the assumption is that ‘I’m not college material.’”

Without trying to build a college-going culture in the state, all the financial aid in the world won’t make a difference, Anthony said. “We need to de-mystify college … for families who think sending their children away to college might as well be sending them to Mars.”

U-M’s Schlissel disagrees. He’is convinced that if he can get low-income students onto his campus, he can keep them there. The school has a 97 percent retention rate between freshmen and sophomore years and, within two years, students from low-income backgrounds and higher-income backgrounds are “indistinguishable” in classroom success.

In recent years, U-M has actively sought academically high-achieving students in poor and rural parts of the state rather than sitting back and hoping they apply. U-M reps travel across Michigan hosting college information sessions.

“We know there are talented students in all parts of our society,” Schlissel said. “The extent to which we can tap into the breadth of experiences and diversity of our state, we make our education better. Students learn from each other. And we want students of all different types of backgrounds to be sitting around a table like this, with a great professor, exploring hard questions and disagreeing with each other.

“We know the talent’s out there,” Schlissel said. “We just have to find them.”

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Comments

Mitchell Robinson
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 8:43am

“So we did an experiment. And the experiment we did is called the HAIL scholarship program and it’s still underway. The basic idea is to take the lower-income graduating high school students and divide them up into two groups. One group gets a letter saying ‘You’re a great student, please apply to the University of Michigan and we offer generous financial aid.’ The other group gets a letter saying ‘Your school and principal have identified you as an outstanding scholar. If you apply and get accepted to Michigan we’ll guarantee you a free four year tuition scholarship plus whatever other aid you qualify for.’
“That latter group, the application rate is 2 ½ times the former group. Two and a half times! These are changes you don’t see in the real world, right? So we went from 20-something percent of students applying with just a letter saying ‘You’re a great student, we give generous financial aid,’ to 68 or 70 percent of students applying when we say ‘If you get in, free tuition.’”
Devin Raymond was one of the lucky high school seniors to get the version of the letter that emphasized the word “free.”
Dear President Schlissel: you could have sent the “free” letter to *all* of the low SES students, and compared the results to those from last year.
Or just sent out the “free” letter and not treated the college admissions opportunities of low SES students like some sort of lab experiment.
And we wonder why people hate higher education…unbelievable.

Mary Fox
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 9:09am

I was once a student who had no one in my family who had attended college. Fortunately, I had counselors and teachers who helped me figure out how to apply. When high schools are understaffed and underfunded to the point they don't have librarians and counselors there are ramifications. My high school helped me. My STATE gave me a full tuition scholarship to any school I could get in based on income and test scores. My COLLEGE gave me additional support. Money is nice, but having a mentor was priceless.

Marion
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 9:15am

Where was this program five years ago when my son graduated? He has $80,000 in loans from U-M and I (only wage earner in the family) did not make even $60k per year.

David Waymire
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 9:15am

No, they did exactly the right thing from a research standpoint. Comparing one year to the next ignores the reality that each year's group is different. Having a control group and an active group is what is called for. And now the university is again doing the right thing, and likely will get good results. This is why we need higher education...so more people have a clear understanding of what good research is and how data can lead to better decisions than dogma. And I really know of no people who have even a limited understanding of how higher education works and can improve the lives of all who are involved who "hate" higher education.

Donna Anuskiewicz
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 9:15am

Contact with high school counselors is essential; they, too, must be convinced that a University of Michigan education is a viable possibility. Campus tours designed for first generation college students should include a day of classroom visits, lunch, meetings with such students already on campus. Parents, too, need to be convinced that U of M is the right place for their children.

Carl
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 10:20am

Can someone explain why the room and board costs are barrier for all, not just low-income students, and why no one talks about them?
"If you apply and get accepted to Michigan we’ll guarantee you a free four year tuition scholarship plus whatever other aid you qualify for." - this does not address room and board.
I was told all freshmen are required to live on campus - is this true? Which means they have to pay more than $10K a year for room and board, if they have to stay on campus.
I searched umich.edu and found that a basic room/board plan with many room mates is
$14,816 a year and you can get to under $10K with cheaper plans and less frills.
Rising costs of room and board are a barrier for all - at most schools - yet it is never addressed.

Why not?

G
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 3:45pm

There is no requirement to live on campus at UM-Ann Arbor as a freshman. Students could live off campus or commute. I asked this question two years ago when we were looking at this campus for one of my children.

Ida Byrd-Hill
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 10:34am

UM has never done a good job at marketing to highly qualified low-income students. I ranked in the 80 percentile on ACT with a 3.5 GPA in high school, UM never marketed to me. I landed at UM because my mother insisted I apply since I had received 10 college acceptances at that point. Ironically, I am an UM alumni, yet UM did not market to my twins. either. My daughter landed at Western MI. She should have landed at UM. My son landed at Rochester Institute of Technology with a $250,000 package.

J Hendricks
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 10:42am

After watching what is going on at Berkeley I am not sure how many kids are "college material". But then again I am not sure how many professors are "college material" either (save for engineering and hard sciences).

John S.
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 11:52am

For a very long time I'd think that the wealthier residents of Michigan (living mostly in the wealthy suburbs) have had a sense of ownership of UofM. It's where we send our children to college. UofM should do a better job of attracting able students from families with poor or modest incomes, but if UofM pushes too hard, there's likely to be blow back.

Michele Strasz
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 4:16pm

Sarah Anthony from MCAN is correct that there are many more challenges to going to college than the finances. Support, culture, sense of belonging, mentoring to name a few. Since getting into UM is a challenge for students I would recommend UM think about offering the scholarship at the other UM campuses in Flint and Dearborn as well. These are campuses where students might feel more comfortable, have the option to transfer to Ann Arbor, and still graduate with the UM brand.

duane
Thu, 09/21/2017 - 6:13pm

To me, rather than trying to elevate U/M enrollment numbers I would like to see President Schlissel be committed to improving the learning of 'poor' students across the state, even preparing many more that can be admitted to U/M to apply and be admitted to other state schools.

I wonder if the moneys U of M is giving to the 'poor' students would generate more value [to 'poor' students in Michigan public schools] if it were by using the University of Michigan 'expertise' to better prepare the 'poor' students for college, for how to learn, for their knowing their knowledge and skills are competitive [at a comparable level with all the entering college students, and that they know how to effectively study], to know what to expect in college and the potential they have [depending on the degree] with a degree, all so the targeted students not only apply, get admitted, but they graduated.

Think of the impact on the 'poor' students if all the state universities collaborate in investing 'expertise', time, and moneys. I would see it a state wide universities collaborative research and development project, it would be unique in the country, it would get more than a few hundred into U/M it would get thousands into colleges and earning their degrees.

It would not only help 'poor' students but it could be a classroom post degree training for teachers so they could leverage it for future generations, but that would require people looking beyond their immediate wants and look to the broadest good for students.

Mark
Fri, 09/22/2017 - 5:41am

Doesn't anybody want to pay for anything anymore?! Earn an academic scholarship, have Family that saves for college education, have college students work part time to supplement their income, etc. Feel Proud and have a Sense of Accomplishment that you Earned the Degree whether through an Academic Scholarship or Paying for it Yourself. I am glad my family taught me and I extended to my family to save money and so we could all attend one of Michigan Great Private Universities....You never lose that sense of accomplishment.

Robyn Tonkin
Fri, 09/22/2017 - 11:03am

Our daughter attended one year at U-MN Duluth campus, and three years at the flagship campus of the U-WI system, Madison. my husband and I both graduated from U-MI Ann Arbor 40+ years ago. Are you truly aware of what college costs? Our daughter attended almost 20 years ago, and we spent out of pocket $75,000. At least, that is what I have checking account records for, so it was probably more. My husband, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, who was on active duty a great deal after 9-11, and also a federal retiree, could stay working and pay for this education. Our daughter arrived at adulthood educated and debt free. All we were able to manage to save up during her childhood was $11,000, and we scrimped and saved and had one child.

I am from a working class background. My dad had no degree and wound up as a mid-level manager for Detroit Edison, retiring at 45 years service. He began during the Depression with Edison (his dad's employer), employed pulling cable. My mom was a housewife. Their expectation for both their daughters, always, was that we would attend the University of MIchigan, and we both did. I did my own paperwork, and got my own good grades, but my highschool counselor, who was very skilled at helping us working class kids transition to college, materially helped along the way.

So, you need money, you need parental expectation and preparation, and you need help from savvy adults in the education field. It's all part of the mix.

Kimberly Hooper
Sat, 09/23/2017 - 12:52pm

What happens when qualified poor kids do apply, but don't get accepted? I personally know two such students, one of them African-American, another underrepresented group at UofM. Both of these qualified students were put on the waiting list rather than being admitted. Both are doing extremely well at the colleges they attended instead. UofM is getting applications from underrepresented groups. They just aren't admitting them.

Conservative_Maestro
Mon, 09/25/2017 - 8:02am

How about breaking the cycle of poverty by creating jobs and getting these people working and being contributing citizens? Why blame their low admission scores on their poverty level? I came from a very poor family, but I did not let that stop me doing well in school and constantly trying to improve myself. I started supporting my family at age 14. The root cause now is the Government handing out the "Free" stuff in exchange for that bumper-crop of votes. The poor community loves it, but it's been going on for so long now (LBJ's "War on Poverty") that they have lost that American work ethic., and their souls along with it. It's also partly to blame for the division in this country. It's a real shame. And with Colleges pushing their Liberal agendas to their students it is only going to get worse.