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The University of Michigan — which, in January of this year, was ranked last in overall social mobility in a report from the Equality of Opportunity Project website — has been aggressively ramping up its efforts to recruit a greater socioeconomic range of students. In June, the University presented its Go Blue Guarantee, which allows any in-state student coming from a family with annual income below the state median of $65,000 to have their tuition completely covered by the University.
Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, said even though the Go Blue Guarantee isn't vastly different from what the University already offers in terms of total aid, one of its major intents was making the message clearer for students.
"One of the premises of the Go Blue Guarantee was to recast our message, in the sense that we have aid available for students at the University of Michigan and we wanted to make sure that the public understands we have that aid available for students at the University of Michigan," she said.
And, at least in certain underserved communities, the guarantee has had that effect. Rackham student Richard Nunn advises the student organization PILOT, which runs a project aiming to create meaningful relationships with new students from underrepresented and marginalized communities. Earlier this month, Nunn hosted an orientation of high school students from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and he said the students seemed very responsive to the news of the guarantee.
"For a lot of these students and for (their mentors) as professionals, it really kind of made U of M seem more attractive in some ways, in terms of, 'Now we know we can afford to go there,' " he said.
Kerstine Bennington, a higher education specialist for and citizen of the tribe, agreed that for many of the students she works with, attending college — especially the University of Michigan — seems unattainable.
"Last semester, I had a lot of high school students who aren't going to pursue college because they just think that they can't afford it and they'll have family members that couldn't do that in the past and then go off of their experience and it's just really hard trying to get through to them," she said. "You hear 'university' and you already think that you can't afford it. This is coming from students that may not have even done the research, they just assumed — so being able to hear about the opportunity definitely changed their minds."
In addition to incorporating messaging about the Go Blue Guarantee into the visits to the approximately 500 Michigan high schools the Office of Undergraduate Admissions conducts, the University has spent "a significant amount" on digital advertising, Ishop said. This has come in the form of targeting underrepresented communities in the state via Twitter, Facebook and email — and she says it's been effective so far.
"We know that for emails we've sent to prospective in-state students, we've had a 43 percent open rate, 20 percent click rate on GBG content — those are good numbers," she said. "43 and 20 percent, those are good numbers considering how often students open their email."
And despite ranking last in social mobility earlier this year, the University appears to have made progress in terms of increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity. The recently released summary of enrollment at the University shows an increase in the percentages of underrepresented minorities, first-generation college students and students eligible for Pell Grants from the incoming freshman class of 2013 to the incoming class of 2017. Since last year, however, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in the freshman class only increased 0.1 percent and the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants decreased 1.4 percent.
Still, though, there are other factors hindering racial and socioeconomic diversity at the University left unaddressed by the guarantee. Even with tuition covered, the cost of living in Ann Arbor — which is high and getting higher — can be enough to deter students from coming.
Public Policy junior Drea Somers said she doesn't fully understand the decision to not include housing costs in the guarantee.
"I think it would be wonderful if the Go Blue Guarantee at least included some kind of dorming or housing situation," she said. "Especially if you don't even live in the metro Detroit area, if you can't afford tuition, why would you be able to afford housing in Ann Arbor? I always look at them like, 'Well, why exclude it?' And I understand that there are financial barriers, but it's also still a barrier to those students' education."
Ishop pointed out that while the Go Blue Guarantee only concerns tuition, there's still more financial aid potentially available to students struggling with living costs.
"We also put a great deal of resources, as you think about that zero to $65,000, that packaging, for many of those students is not only just for tuition, but a lot of those students would be receiving aid up to full cost of attendance or close to full cost of attendance," she said. "Certainly we all understand that there are difficult choices that have to be made — they have to find housing and they're living that life of having to adjust to somewhat of a wealthy community in Ann Arbor, but we're certainly providing financial aid to be able to meet the demonstrated need at the cost of living for the University."
But in addition to those additional financial barriers, being a new student and part of an underrepresented class at a large university can be intimidating. Graduating from a high school class of 30, Bennington said she experienced that disruption coming to college too, which was why she wanted to arrange the orientation for her students at the University.
"Going downstate to a university was culture shock, it was really scary," she said. "And when we scheduled these kids for this tour, that's what we were trying to get them acclimated to — the city life, and letting them get that exposure before just jumping into a semester as a freshman, where they're more likely to drop out because they were just too overwhelmed."
And it’s more than just culture shock, Nunn said — the University can often make underrepresented students feel invisible and unrecognized.
"The University of Michigan was founded on land given to it, in some ways, by the tribes of Michigan," he said. "There's no buildings named for native folks on campus — the C.C. Little debate about, 'What do we rename C.C. Little?' Well, we should probably recognize how we were founded in some ways. What does that say to native students, prospective native students about the University of Michigan? And I don't think it says that we're being inclusive — even if we're trying to."