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Bridge Michigan
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Why does U-M accept so few low-income students?

Kalli Hooper and Mark Schlissel have never met. As things stand, they likely never will.

Kalli is a 17-year-old high school senior with impressive college application numbers. She scored a 31 on her ACT, placing her in the top 2 percent of students in Michigan. She has a 3.8 grade point average at North Farmington High School, and is on the dean’s list at Oakland Community College, where she’s amassed 31 college credits while attending high school. She has seven varsity letters.

Schlissel is president of the University of Michigan, which has its own impressive set of numbers. It is the fourth-ranked public university in the country, as measured by U.S. News & World Report. It has the second-largest endowment among public universities, at more than $7.8 billion, allowing the school to offer generous financial aid to low-income students like Kalli.

But U-M has one number it’s probably not proud of: the smallest share of low-income students among Michigan’s public universities, and one of the lowest rates among public universities in the country. Schlissel says increasing diversity, including economic diversity, on the Ann Arbor campus is a priority.

Which brings us back to Kalli, who grew up in a family with an income under $30,000, with an Expected Family Contribution on federal college financial aid forms of less than $1,000 a year. She’s survived her parents’ divorce, their bouts of unemployment and a house lost to foreclosure.

Despite having an academic record well within the range of accepted students at U-M, Kalli was placed on a waiting list for admission. If past years are an indication, she isn’t likely to have a chance to enroll.

“Most of my friends with similar scores got in (to U-M),” Kalli said. “What more could I have done?”

The fate of Kalli’s U-M application represents the challenge faced by low-income students across the country trying to gain admission to elite colleges, and the simultaneous challenge faced by colleges struggling to add economic diversity to their campuses.

Low-income students, many of whom are also the first generation in their families to consider higher education, often do not have access to tutors and the kind of college navigation advice Bridge has noted is routinely available to wealthier students.

Meanwhile, highly-rated universities such as U-M and MSU struggle to find ways to get more qualified low-income students to apply while maintaining the academic standards on which their national rankings are partly based. And when low-income students like Kalli do apply, they are competing for spots with, in the case of U-M this year, 50,000 other hopefuls.

Michigan officials say the university’s acceptance rate is about the same for low-income applicants and higher-income applicants, and that the school attempts in its admissions process to give low-income and first-generation college students an edge.

But while income diversity is slowly improving on campus, the school still lags most public universities in the nation.

The need to diversify Michigan’s universities

Michigan’s low-income high school graduates enroll in college at lower levels than their wealthier, suburban peers. Those who do enroll are less likely to attend a four-year school, and more likely to drop out before earning a degree.

Closing that gap would provide an economic boost to Michigan, which currently ranks in the bottom half of states in adult college attainment. Michigan would need 287,328 more adults to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher just to reach the national average. Those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average 70 percent more than those with a high school diploma ($1,108 per week versus $651 per week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Because middle- and upper-income students already enroll in college at high rates, Michigan’s best shot at increasing college attainment is to get more low-income students onto campus.

The most common way to gauge the percentage of low-income students on campus is by the number of Pell Grant recipients. The Pell Grant program offers financial aid (that doesn’t have to be paid back) to low-income students. About 75 percent of Pell recipients come from families earning $30,000 or less.

Eleven of Michigan’s 15 public universities enroll more Pell recipients than the national average of 33 percent. Almost half of Wayne State University students receive Pell Grants, for example, and 45 percent at Eastern Michigan University.

Conversely, at Michigan State University, 24 percent of students are low income; Oakland University, 23 percent.

At the University of Michigan, under 17 percent – about one in eight – students come from low-income families.

One reason for the low number of poor students on the Ann Arbor campus is that U-M is a highly selective university, with the middle 50 percent of its students earning ACT scores of 28 to 32 (the average ACT score in Michigan is 20.1).

Because test scores are correlated to a frustrating degree to income, the more selective a university is, the lower a share of lower-income students it tends to have.

For example, the three public universities with the highest student ACT scores (U-M, MSU and Michigan Tech) rank 1st, 3rd and 4th in lowest percentage of Pell Grant recipients among the state’s 15 four-year public universities.

The story is the same at high academic private universities. At Kalamazoo College, for example, 19 percent of students are low income; Hope College, 20 percent.

But even when compared with other elite public universities across the country, U-M lags in income diversity. Among the 25 highest-rated public universities in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report, U-M has the fourth-lowest share of low-income students on campus. At the top-rated public college, the University of California Berkeley, one of three students is low income, compared with one in eight at U-M.

In 2013, just 13 percent of incoming U-M freshmen hailing from Michigan came from families with incomes under $50,000, when three times that percentage of Michigan families earn under that figure. Nearly half (49 percent) of Michigan-resident freshmen came from families earning more than $150,000; three out of four freshmen from outside Michigan were from families above that income figure.

“It’s been a great concern of mine,” said Former U-M President James Duderstadt. “James Angell (U-M president from 1871 to 1909) said the university should provide ‘an uncommon education for the common man.’ Increasingly, if you look at the economic distribution of the students, it provides an uncommon education for the uncommonly rich.”

Leveling opportunity

Increasing college opportunity for low-income students has become a national priority,
with many universities pledging to open their doors to more poor students and offer them more financial aid.

Schlissel, who was named U-M president last July, made the same point at a conference of university officials from across the country last fall in Ann Arbor. Colleges need to do more to get low-income students enrolled, “because talent is uniformly distributed across the populace,” Schlissel said, “but opportunity most certainly is not.

Attaining that diversity is more difficult today, after the Supreme Court upheld the state of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in admission decisions. Since race was barred from being a consideration in admissions, U-M’s undergraduate enrollment of African-Americans has dropped to the lowest levels in decades. Last fall's freshmen class was 3.7 percent African-American; in the state as a whole, 14.3 percent of residents are African-American. The same policy that allowed race to be among a number of factors in admissions decisions also had the effect of increasing income diversity.

No prep course, but plenty of resilience

Kalli Hooper said she couldn’t make college visits before she applied because her family didn’t have a reliable car. She wanted to take a test prep course to prepare for the ACT, but her mother couldn’t afford the fee.

“They don’t realize the challenges that low-income students face,” said Kalli’s mother, Kimberly Hooper. “Any kid who is low income who has great test scores, that kid is resilient. That’s the kind of kid who is going to do well in college.”

A recent study whose main author is Michael Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at U-M, found that low-income students are increasingly concentrated in community colleges, which makes it less likely that they will earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, and presents greater challenges to their earning potential.

College admission offices in Michigan say they are very aware of income stratification on campus, and universities are trying to find ways to address it. “I don’t think they (colleges) have much of a choice” but to address it, said Lynn Blue, vice provost and dean of academic services and information technology at Grand Valley State University.

At Grand Valley, 36 percent of students are low-income. Admissions officers visit hundreds of schools a year, many in low-income and rural areas, tailoring their message to the audience.
“If it’s a low-income school, we’re going to talk about affordability,” Blue said. “They don’t want to know about the new library. They want to know how they could afford four years of college.

“It’s a social justice issue,” Blue said. “These are capable individuals who can contribute to society. If we’re not including those voices, we are losing so much. Ignoring them would be like throwing talent in the landfill.”

‘What’s our strategy?’

U-M is a major research university, so it’s not surprising that it has conducted research on the challenge of attracting more low-income students.

“If you fill out the application and are admitted, the percentage of low-income kids who graduate (from Michigan) is roughly the same as high-income kids,” said Al Franzblau, vice provost for business and academic affairs at U-M. “The big drop-off is in the applications submitted. We know there are lots of kids who come from, say, not the best high schools, who score in the range of Michigan, and we’re not seeing a lot of those applications. The trick is, how do you get those kids to apply?”

Other U-M research, still underway, found that there are, at the average Michigan high school, just three low-income students who qualify academically for U-M.

Even for a college as rich as the University of Michigan, it’s difficult to justify spending money to send admissions counselors to schools to try to find those three students, U-M officials say. “What’s our strategy?” Franzblau said. “How do we be efficient? We don’t have an infinite pool of dollars. We’re trying to think of what we can do to efficiently and effectively reach this audience.”

Low-income students, particularly those whose parents never attended college, often don’t realize that attending U-M can be as cheap as attending the local community college. “That message isn’t out there,” Franzblau said.

Because of the fear of college sticker prices, students from low-income families tend to under-reach, applying for less selective schools than they are qualified to attend.

“We believe there are high-achieving, low-income kids in Michigan,” Franzblau said. “We do the best we can to find qualified students to bring in.”

So why did Kalli, with her high ACT and GPA and a boatload of college credits not gain admission?

The university’s admissions office knows a student’s family’s income range and whether the student’s parents attended college through questions on the Common Application, which U-M and many other schools around the country use. The school gives an edge in admissions decisions to students from low-income families and whose parents did not attend college, called "first generation students" in college parlance. “We consider those as positive factors in the holistic review for admission to U-M,” said U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.

Even with the university trying to increase income diversity, and with the school accepting about half of Michigan-resident applicants each year, Kalli was wait-listed. An email from a U-M admissions officer to Kalli, shared with Bridge by the Hooper family, said Kalli “has the capability to be a successful student at the University of Michigan,” but that “it was just so competitive this year that we did not have space to admit all the academically excellent students that applied.”

Continuing the cycle

Income diversity is creeping upward at U-M. The percentage of incoming freshmen from Michigan families earning less than $50,000 increased from 9 percent to 13 percent in the past decade.
Kalli likely won’t be going there. Michigan has taken very few aspiring Wolverines off their wait lists in recent years.

Kalli turned in a deposit to enroll at Michigan Tech, where she hopes to study business. She’s awaiting word on whether she’ll get an offer from U-M off the school’s wait list.

She says she’s fine either way. But she worries that other low-income, high-achieving students don’t have the options she had.

“If you keep low-income kids out of the best colleges,” Kalli said, “you’re just continuing the cycle of the wealthy kids going to the best schools and getting the best opportunities.”

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