Low-income students soar at some colleges, struggle at others



Terrel Edmondson was a college dropout waiting to happen. A low-income kid from a Detroit family from which no one had gone to college, Edmondson stepped onto the campus of Michigan State University in the summer of 2014 with no idea how to navigate the world of higher education.

“Without help, I’d have dropped out my freshman year,” Edmondson said. “I’d be back in Detroit, living with my mom, working a dead-end job.”

Instead, he’s a sophomore with a 3.1 GPA, who spent last summer studying abroad in China. “In 10 years, I can see myself in a six-figure job,” Edmondson said.

College is supposed to be a ticket to the middle class. And for some like Edmondson, it is. But the odds of a low-income college student getting a degree, earning a good living, making as much as their classmates who grew up in wealthier families and emerging with manageable student debt, depends to a disturbing degree on which campus they set foot on.

SLIDESHOW: Ranking Michigan colleges by social mobility

A Bridge analysis of federal data reveals that some Michigan colleges and universities, including MSU, are social mobility factories, offering big tuition breaks for the poor, along with academic tutoring, financial literacy and mentors to ease the adjustment to college life. MSU is tops in the state in promoting social mobility, according to a social mobility index created by Bridge from the recently released federal College Scorecard.


Source: College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education.

Davenport, Wayne State enroll most poor students

Percentage of student body that are eligible to receive Pell Grants – a federal grant for low-income students.

Rank College/university Percent poor students
1 Davenport University 52.8%
2 Wayne State 48
3 Olivet 46
4 U-M Flint 45.2
5 Spring Arbor 44.9
6 Eastern Michigan 44.7
7 Adrian 43.7
8 Cornerstone 43.5
9 Siena Heights 43.4
10 U-M Dearborn 43
11 Lake Superior 41.5
12 Ferris State 41.2
13 Saginaw Valley 40.8
14 Western Michigan 39.7
15 Rochester College 38.8
16 Northern Michigan 38.5
17 Schoolcraft 38
18 College for Creative Studies 37
19 Grand Valley 36.3
20 Madonna 35.7
21 Central Michigan 34.9
22 Aquinas 33.6
23 Northwood 33.5
24 Andrews 31.6
25 U-D Mercy 28.7
26 Michigan Tech 26.7
27 Kettering 25
28 Michigan State 23.9
29 Alma 23.7
30 Calvin 23.3
31 Hope 20.4
32 Oakland 20.3
33 Lawrence Tech 18.5
34 U-M Ann Arbor 15.7
34 Baker NA

Source: College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education.

Cost for low-income students lowest at Schoolcraft, U-M

The average net cost for students with family income under $30,000 is lowest at Schoolcraft, but Schoolcraft’s figure does not include housing. For a school that provides housing, the least expensive university for low-income students is the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Average annual net cost is expenses such as tuition, fees and housing, minus grants and scholarships.

Rank College/university Avg.
annual cost*
1 Schoolcraft $2,833
2 U-M Ann Arbor $5,529
3 Michigan State $6,293
4 U-M Dearborn $6,386
5 Lake Superior $7,064
6 Oakland $7,311
7 U-M Flint $7,952
8 Madonna $8,862
9 Northern Michigan $8,984
10 Michigan Tech $9,204
11 Ferris State $9,469
12 Central Michigan $10,107
13 Wayne State $10,544
14 Aquinas $10,730
15 Eastern Michigan $10,938
16 Northwood $10,993
17 Grand Valley $11,159
18 Saginaw Valley $11,596
19 Spring Arbor $13,211
20 Western Michigan $13,575
21 Hope $14,183
22 Siena Heights $14,292
23 Cornerstone $15,310
24 Adrian $15,774
25 Olivet $16,117
26 Andrews $16,210
27 Calvin $16,979
28 Davenport University $17,354
29 Rochester College $18,084
30 Alma $18,614
31 Lawrence Tech $24,074
32 U-D Mercy $24,451
33 Kettering $26,542
34 College for Creative Studies $33,268
NR Baker NA

*Average cost for students with incomes below $30,000.


At MSU and a handful of other campuses, students from low-income homes fare as well as their wealthier classmates a decade after entering college. Other schools, however, do little to help low-income students climb the economic ladder.


  • Income gap: There is a 26 percent income gap between what Michigan students from poorer families earned 10 years after entering college and what students from wealthier families earned. Students whose families were in the bottom third in income when they entered college in 2004 earned an average of $40,241 in 2014. Students from families in the top third earned $50,919.
  • Social immobility: The poor student/wealthier student gap was a whopping 60 percent at Baker College, and over 40 percent at Rochester College, Schoolcraft College and Cornerstone University.
  • Poor students soar at some schools: Low-income students who entered MSU in 2004, by contrast, earned more than wealthier classmates - $61,500 compared with $58,500.
  • Wide salary range: The median salary of low-income students 10 years after enrollment ranged from a low of $24,500 for Baker College students, to $70,400 for University of Michigan-Ann Arbor students. Kettering University was second highest, at $66,500, and MSU third, at $61,500.
  • Wide graduation rates: Grad rates (a degree within six years) for low-income students were as high as 81 percent at U-M, and as low as 17 percent, at Schoolcraft, in Livonia. The best low-income graduation rate among Michigan’s private schools: Alma College and Hope College, at 75 percent.
  • Price tags: Costs vary widely, according to the federal data, and appear to have little correlation on poor students’ odds of earning a degree or making a good living. The most expensive school for students with income under $30,000 is Detroit’s College for Creative Studies There, low-income students pay an average of $33,000 per year and, 10 years after enrollment, have an average salary of $40,000. At Lawrence Tech, low-income students paid an average of $24,000 a year, but only one-third earn a degree within six years. By contrast, poor students at U-M pay an average of $5,529 per year, and 10 years after enrollment are earning $70,400.


Ranking schools by social mobility


Erin Fischer preaches social mobility every day.

As a Michigan College Advising Corps member, Fischer offers guidance on higher education options to students at Lansing Eastern High School, where many of the students come from low-income households.

“Without help, I’d have dropped out my freshman year. I’d be back in Detroit, living with my mom, working a dead-end job.” ‒ MSU student Terrel Edmondson

Michigan’s low-income students are less likely to enroll in college, less likely to attend four-year universities, and less likely to graduate when they do enroll. Getting college degrees into the hands of more low-income students is key to improving Michigan’s economy.

“I try to talk about the social mobility opportunity” available at many four-year institutions, like access to “internships and awareness of jobs,” Fischer said. “It’s a real challenge to talk to students and parents about it.”

Fischer said she doesn’t think most students realize that some colleges and universities do a better job of helping them climb the economic ladder than others.

There’s not one agreed-upon way to measure a college’s social mobility success. Before we describe Bridge’s method, here’s how others have measured it:

Washington Monthly magazine uses the percent of students who are eligible for Pell Grants (federal grants for college expenses given to low-income students), average net cost for low-income students, and graduation rates. In that ranking, MSU is likewise ranked highest for social mobility among Michigan schools, and 34th among national universities.

In a social mobility index developed by CollegeNet, an Oregon web technology company, the University of Michigan-Dearborn ranked highest among Michigan colleges and universities, while ranking 52nd nationally. The CollegeNet index factors in tuition cost, the percent of the student body that is low-income, early-career median salary, graduation rate and endowment.

Combine several factors – enrolling poor students, not charging them an arm and a leg, graduating them, and moving them on to good-paying jobs; jobs that pay salaries as high as wealthier classmates receive – and you have a rough recipe for high college social mobility.

Bridge Magazine used five factors to create its own social mobility index for Michigan colleges and universities:

  • Percent of low-income students on campus (as measured by Pell Grant recipients);
    Their graduation rates;
  • Average net cost for poor students to attend;
  • Median salaries of low-income students 10 years after first enrolling;
  • Gap between the median salaries of former students who were low-income when they enrolled, and their upper-income classmates. This factor was included to see if colleges equalized the economic opportunities for its poor and more affluent students.

In Bridge’s index, Michigan State University tops the list because it enrolls thousands of low-income students like Terrel Edmondson and ensures they graduate into jobs that assure that most will be better off financially than their parents.

MSU ranked among the top five in cost, graduation rate and salaries for low-income students, as well as salary equity between former rich and poor students 10 years after enrollment.

Providing opportunity to a diverse student population is part of the mission of the state’s land grant institution, said Doug Estry, associate provost for undergraduate education at MSU, in an email.

“All of those students have significant potential, but some, for one reason or another, may need more support in realizing that potential than others.”

Poor and first-generation students get that assistance through programs such as summer bridge programs for incoming freshmen to acclimate them to college life, and a federally funded program called TRIO Student Support Services.

About 600 MSU students take advantage of TRIO services, which include academic counseling and seminars on financial literacy.

“When I first arrived, I had no idea what my major would be,” said Edmondson, a media and information major who serves as a mentor in the program and has used the one-on-one tutoring available through TRIO. “Now I’m taking all kinds of technical classes I never thought I could succeed in.”

Michigan Tech, in Houghton, is in the top 10 in the state in graduating low-income students (60 percent) and in future earnings ($54,000).

According to Michigan Tech’s internal data on graduates, low-income students come to Houghton, on average, in the bottom 28 percent of household income in the country. Ten years after stepping on campus, the students from poor families are in the 57th percentile nationally; by mid-career, they are, on average, in the top 23 percent.

“Some of the most satisfying parts of our work is seeing students from limited means spend four years with us and graduate with a standard of living that is higher than anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives,” said John Lehman, associate vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications at Michigan Tech.

In general, low-income students are more likely to move up the economic ladder by attending public universities than private colleges in Michigan, the federal data show. Eight of the top 10 institutions in our rankings are public universities.

“The promotion of social mobility for individuals across the entire income spectrum is an integral aspect of Michigan’s public universities’ missions,” said Dan Hurley, president of the Michigan Association of State Universities, which represents the state’s 15 public universities. “For the state, it’s not just a matter of promoting greater social equity, it’s absolutely critical to Michigan’s future economic prosperity.”

That’s a message Edmondson learned early at MSU.

“I always felt a lot of pressure from myself and my family by being the first person from my family to attend a university,” he said. Now, “I feel comfortable (knowing) I won’t … be a statistic.”

Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report

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Earl Newman
Tue, 01/26/2016 - 10:08am
Do you know what "spurious" means? You have compiled some interesting data regarding some of our state schools, but if you want to use these data to infer some qualitative difference between these schools, you have not presented information that would lead to this conclusion. If you want to use these data to show that some schools are "better" for low-income students, we would have to say that your demonstration of a relationship is spurious. A spurious relationship is one that appear to be true but is not supported by the data. If you want to conclude that sioome schools do a better job of helping low income students you need to document what it is that is different in the cultures of these institutions, not their outcomes. As we say, "correlation is not causation."
Tue, 01/26/2016 - 12:07pm
I have to ask, how do the low-income students at U of M differ systematically from the low-income students at, say, Ferris? How do the programs/career-focus of Kettering, Michigan Tech, and Lawrence Tech impact the salaries of graduates at WMU, GVSU, and/or the College for Creative Studies? In other words, where does high school GPA/test scores or career/degree have a greater impact on the correlation than merely the university at which the student is enrolled?
Tue, 01/26/2016 - 12:26pm
The University of Michigan Ann Arbor looks good in offering financial support of low income students. The trouble is that UM accepts a tiny few low income students when compared to other universities in Michigan and across the nation. Brilliant low income students are often denied acceptance, perhaps because UM may be a "need aware" school. Regardless of the circumstances, a New York Times study, using the percentage of the student body with Pell Grants as a litmus test, found the U of M Ann Arbor was among the two or three stingiest flagship universities in the nation to support low income students. U of M even touts the percentage of out-of-state students it has, for whom tuition cost can triple, providing maximum revenue to a state university with a $10 billion endowment. And, UM is sorely lacking in low income outreach. It is primarily a bastion of upper middle class and wealthy students, increasingly denying its mission to be available to all Michigan applicants, especially poor ones.
Tue, 01/26/2016 - 9:09pm
The information is good, but by being so limited could it distort the realities, the expectations, be misleading in what it takes to achieve the average earning a potential student could expect 10 years after graduation? Could the nature of the degrees offered at the respective institutions impact the average earnings, if one offers engineering degrees [average starting salary above $60,000 a year change the 10 year average for earnings] could that distort the data? Does the place where the students are wanting to work have an impact? Are some schools directed more to the local community market while others are more designed for the global skills market? I wonder if the expectations of the students when selecting the school have an impact on the averaged earning. Do they consider the life styles 10 years after earning a degree and what it will take to achieve that live style when selecting a school? How does their high school prepare them for looking past college, do they even know what types of careers are out there? Does their career aspiration have an impact on later employment? I appreciate the limitation on writing an article and how much can and cannot be covered. Since this is such a valuable topic it seems to warrant a series of articles. If there are to be subsequent articles to this one I would encourage mentioning that at the end of the article so students and parents know there is more they will need to consider.
Wed, 01/27/2016 - 5:31pm
Kalamazoo College was inadvertently left off the Bridge table “Five ways to measure social mobility.” Here are data points for K drawn from College Scoreboard: Graduation rate for K Pell grant recipients: 73.5% - K would be #4 on the Bridge list. Average earnings for students receiving federal financial aid ten years after graduation: $49,400 - K would have placed 7th on the Bridge list. Average Cost for K students coming from families with annual income below $30,000: $10,326. - K would be #13 on the Bridge list. Percent of Pell Grant recipients at K: 19%. - K would be #33 on the Bridge list. Also, K placed 27th and 24th, respectively on Washington Monthly’s 2014 and 2015 annual list of liberal arts colleges nationally. Recruiting and graduating low-income students is one of the three measures of being on that list. The magazine uses the percent of students who are eligible for Pell Grants, average net cost for those students, and their graduation rates.
Greg Gamalski
Sun, 01/31/2016 - 5:32pm
Thus Jeff maybe you should CORRECT the Bridge table since that might seem like important information? Furthermore I think the K results once included show that it is possible to prosper with a liberal arts education. I also suggest that the purpose of any education is not only to train workers for the needs of business, the current Golden Calf of common worship in America. An important purpose is to create an informed and civic minded community. I suspect when Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia he did not spend much time worrying about how much money the grads could make, did he? Education is not mere conveyor into Moloch's maw. Thus I look forward to Bridge creating some metric that shows how well each of these institutions do in preparing the college graduates for active, informed engagement in our civil society. I think we could use more of that and less vocational focus myself, given the state of current public discourse. I hazard that someone with a more well-rounded education other than just B School MBA cost benefit analysis might have maybe made a different decision on say... water in Flint? Nothing in Bridge's idiosyncratic analysis addresses that issue. To paraphrase the quotation on Trowbridge Hall at K College ("The end of learning is gracious living.") is not the end of learning to live in grace? Lux Esto
John Grant
Thu, 01/28/2016 - 12:08pm
Thanks to Mr. French for trying to put a highly complex issue into focus. A few problems: 1. Admission standards. U of M is the most highly competitive in the state, while Wayne State throws open its doors and says "Come on in! If you can pass the courses, you can stay." By definition, WSU is going to lose more low-income students -- they have not been vetted. Nevertheless, I think a case could be made that many undergrad degrees at WSU demand a more rigorous dedication to academic achievement than U of M. 2. Disciplines: Both WSU and U of M have great engineering schools. But the U of M grad will likely make more money because of the rep of the school and intangibles like a nationally known football/basketball team. 3. Low income distorts horizons: my guess is that getting a teaching degree, a profession that is notoriously underpaid, is a career more likely to appeal to a low income student. It seems to me that a teaching degree from U of M doesn't get you a dollar more than union scale when you start teaching, so that a degree from WSU -- at half the price -- is the smart thing to do. A 4-year degree from WSU's notoriously tough School of Nursing probably offers all the career choices of U of M, also at probably half the cost. These kinds of choices -- made by the careful student of limited income -- would obviously distort these statistics. 4. It was not clear to me from the article what post-grad study is involved. It is widely believed that U of M's rep is built on its grad schools, while Schoolcraft does not have a four year degree that I know of. Schoolcraft is a community college paid for and catering to Livonia/Northville/Plymouth residents and students -- hardly some impoverished Detroit suburbs. A 17% graduation rate may indicate that the school provides a short-term transition for many well-to-do students to move on to four year institutions that the parents can easily afford. 5. The news on MSU is very positive. Once, State had the rep of being the "party-time-jock" school. I think its fair to assume that these stats show that State has made a conscious decision to excel with low income students and has succeeded. Over the past two decades, MSU has worked to earn its role as a top quality institution. Even so, a low income student -- especially from the metro-Detroit area -- might find it more sensible economically to attend WSU and live with Mom and/or Dad, and its "commuter" campus, no matter what the stats show about social mobility.
Fri, 01/29/2016 - 12:17am
John, The choice is between content and self image. You make a good case for content over self image. Another consideration is campus culture, is it more collaborative or individual completion, is it more reflective of the work environment the student wants or is it more about social networking. The student needs to take these choices into consideration. I saw a situation where a student and his parents chose to change school choices when he was accepted to a most prestigious school. It was a very individual competition rather than collaboration. The student did not succeed and rather then go his initial choice he dropped college all together. Having had the opportunity to work with people from a wide spread of colleges/universities, I found that [much as you described] it is about how you applied what you learned rather than were you graduated from. I would add to your example of a commuter school, it will take more self discipline than a resident school. The resident school is structured to help a student study, places to study, social circles that reinforcing the importance of studying. A commuting school places the responsibility for creating a place to study on the student, and requiring the student do being more self motivated because they have less opportunity for social reinforcement.
John Grant
Sun, 01/31/2016 - 11:41am
Too true about WSU and the commuter campus problem, which has tormented the school for more than a half century, Student cohesion or a sense of brand loyalty is hard to find at WSU in spite of the quality of the education. The lack of nationally respected sports programs has not helped. It's easy to see its image improving as the university and medical center/cultural center continue to inspire development in the Cass-Woodward corridor. Your point about student self-discipline is well taken, too. The distractions of living at home and family matters make slogging through to a degree much more difficult.
Wed, 02/03/2016 - 2:42pm
Albion College also wasn't included in the table of data associated with this Bridge story. Below is information for Albion: - Pell Grant recipients at Albion: 24% - Graduation rate for Albion Pell Grant recipients: 54.5% - Average cost for Albion students from families with annual income below $30,000: $18,614 - Median earnings for students receiving federal financial aid 10 years after first entering Albion: $45,100 Additionally, the first seven Build Albion Fellows enrolled at Albion in fall 2015. Each year the college will cover the four-year tuition, room and board costs for up to 10 admitted first-year students who reside in the city of Albion and demonstrate high financial need based on the FAFSA. In return, the students will perform work and service in the local community that increasingly becomes tied to their career interests.