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In LSA freshman Ashley Soto’s hometown of Grand Rapids, the University of Michigan is not always a feasible option for high-school seniors. Facing an average cost of attendance of $28,776 per year, Soto said most lower-income students don’t even consider the University when applying to colleges.
“Coming from the west side of the state, Michigan is not a name you hear very often,” Soto said. “It’s mostly Grand Valley and Ferris State University … I think the biggest thing that scares people is the price tag … I actually have friends who I encouraged to apply to become freshmen next year and even teachers told them not to because they didn’t think they would make it.”
LSA freshman Daija White did not consider the University as her first choice either when applying to colleges last year. She could have gone across the border to Canada as a dual citizen, and would have likely paid much less for her degree. However, when she received an advertisement in the mail for the High Achieving Involved Leaders Scholarship, she said her thoughts about the University and her future changed.
“I had already known I was going to apply to the college,” White said. “It definitely wasn’t my first choice but I had known I was going to apply and at least see what the outcome was … (HAIL) was a large part of it.”
The HAIL Scholarship is a full-tuition scholarship that reportedly targets low-income students across Michigan that have the ability to succeed but might not be able to afford the cost of attendance. The scholarship is listed in the 49-page Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan as a method of improving socioeconomic diversity at the University, and has been lauded multiple times by University President Mark Schlissel.
The scholarship is valued at about $60,000. According to a University press release, 262 HAIL recipients enrolled at the University in 2015. Some of those students, however, say they remain estranged from the larger campus community.
White said when she told one of her classmates in high school about how she was awarded the scholarship, he said it was only because she was Black and of lower socioeconomic status. Even though White knew this wasn’t entirely true, she could not find any solace while at the University to prove her former classmate wrong.
“In the effort to become more diversified, they’ve … alienated people at the same time,” White said.
Students from higher socioeconomic levels are currently disproportionately represented in the University’s undergraduate student body. As originally reported by the Equality of Opportunity Project, the median family income of a student at the University is $154,000 and 1 in 10 students are from the top 1 percent of the income distribution — the University ranked last in social mobility among elite public colleges.
In response to criticism about the University’s lack of socioeconomic diversity, Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, said the HAIL Scholarship is one way to help low-income students choose the University.
“We started this pilot scholarship to recruit … a group of low-income students from Michigan with … a pretty detailed communication packet that goes to the student, that goes to the student’s influencers — meaning the parents get an information packet, the high school principal and counselor get an information packet,” Ishop said. “(We’re) helping the student know that, ‘if you are admitted to Michigan, if you apply to Michigan and get admitted to Michigan, your tuition is covered.’ ”
White and Soto both said the information packet did not explain why they qualified for the scholarship and left them in the dark about the program. Soto said she still is not aware what the requirements of HAIL are; all she knows is it’s helping her pay for school. White said there was no information about the scholarship online.
“When I first got the (packet) in the mail at the end of junior year … I honestly thought it was spam because I tried to look it up on the Internet and I could not find anything about it and it was very vague, the language,” she said. “They didn’t say why I was selected and even now, talking to some of the other scholarship recipients, I can’t really see one set commonality between all of us.”
Soto and White also both said the scholarship tends to tokenize students from lower-income backgrounds. Soto said she sometimes feels as though she was only admitted to the University through the HAIL scholarship to fill a diversity quota.
“(Tokenization) is actually something me and my friends talk about pretty often,” Soto said. “My boyfriend and my best friend from K-school and preschool, we all got accepted and we were in the top 10 percent of our (high school) class and we were really excited to get here, but once we were here, we realized that people that come from our communities aren’t very represented and it kind of felt like (the University) was trying to meet a quota in a way.”
Ishop said the University attempts to connect students with resources on campus, but improving diversity is a trial and error process for everyone.
“We all have a responsibility to make sure that we help our students become part of the UM experience,” Ishop said. “It’s a challenging endeavor for us and we don’t always get it right the first time but I think we’ve put a great deal of effort … into identifying students, identifying their needs, to make sure they’re supported by the University.”
The scholarship is still a pilot program in its second year. According to the DEI plan, the program will be re-evaluated after three years of data have been collected, and changes will be made accordingly. White agreed the scholarship should be more of an integration-based program. As of right now, she admitted, HAIL attracts students to the University, but does not make them feel comfortable in their new academic environment.
“(HAIL) can be improved 110 percent,” White said. “I just think it was a good idea on paper but as far as application, it kind of fell short in the end. As far as what they’re trying to do, I think it would be better to have more of a program and more integration into the University. If they really, truly wanted these people to come here, you’d think they would make them feel more accepted and more welcome.”
This article is the third part of "Hurdles," an ongoing series of articles on institutional barriers faced by members of the campus community.
Correction appended: a previous version of this article misstated Soto's hometown, and the average cost of attendance.