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To get first-generation students to college: Could the answer be…a bus?

Five years ago, Central Michigan University Director of Undergraduate Admissions Tom Speakman held a meeting with high school guidance counselors from around the state. The counselors wanted to get more of their students to college. Speakman wanted more students to consider CMU.

Guidance counselors told Speakman their school districts couldn’t afford to bring groups of students for campus visits.

“I said, ‘What if we subsidized the trip? Invite them to campus, interact with students, have a walking tour and a lunch?’

“They said, ‘Where do we sign up?’”

Paying for students to visit campus has become a remarkably simple and successful way for students from low-income, rural and first-generation families ‒ the kind of students who are least likely to visit a campus on their own ‒ to get a feel for college life.

The college visit is a rite of passage in many middle- and upper-income families. But teens from low-income families may not have the money or the means to tour campuses to help make their college decisions. Low-income students and students from rural schools enroll in college at far lower rates than the state average.  

In the 2017-18 school year, CMU hosted 260 high school bus trips, allowing roughly 10,000 students to tour its campus.

Besides visits from schools across Michigan, “we’ve had bus trips from Chicago, from northern Indiana, from Toledo and Bowling Green,” Speakman said. “If they come in a school bus, we cover all the expenses. If they charter a bus, we pay 50 percent.”

The cost to CMU is between $110,000 and $120,000 a year.

Last year alone, 400 students who visited Central Michigan on a high school bus trip enrolled at the Mt. Pleasant campus.

“Figure tuition, room and board for 400 students,” and it’s safe to say CMU benefits at least as much as the school districts, Speakman said.

“We’re trying to make the college visitation experience all the more worthwhile and make it so it doesn’t tax the (high) schools’ budgets,” Speakman said. “It’s a great opportunity to reach first gens (students whose parents didn’t attend college) who have never been on a campus.”

Marlette Public Schools in Sanilac County and the Sanilac County Community Foundation have both packed buses with high school students for CMU tours.

“Goodness gracious, if you (subsidize) one bus for $500, you’re earning that off one student if they come there, and you can get 40 or 50 (potential students) there!” said Melissa Anderson, director of the Community Foundation in Sanilac. “CMU is leading the way on this. I’ve not seen it from other large universities. If I were to challenge other universities on one thing, it would be to make that available to rural areas.”

Anderson said she believes if Michigan universities can get more low-income, first-generation teens onto college campuses for visits, more will see college as a viable option.

“If people who have never seen success can break out of their bubble, there can be a ripple effect for the next generation,” Anderson said.  “I don’t care how much money you spend, if you can change one kid’s outlook on life, mission accomplished.”

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