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In a recently published working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers discussed the potential success factors and effects of intervening in the college application process of high-achieving, low-income high school seniors through the University’s High Achieving Involved Leadership, or HAIL, scholarship.
The HAIL scholarship, which awards qualifying students around $60,000, covers four years of tuition to selected in-state students, and was started in 2015 to increase the population of low income students at the University. The goal of the NBER study was to measure whether or not targeting these particular students in high school would increase the number of lower income students who apply to and attend the University.
One strategy the study investigated was the University's decision to send out elaborate, encouraging letters and materials to selected students. This was not expensive — each letter cost around $10.00 for the University to produce. It was the legitimacy of the envelope, which was glossy and in the University’s signature maize and blue colors, as well as the laudatory content of the letter emphasizing four years of free tuition, that researchers found really encouraged these selected students to apply to and attend the University.
1,932 targeted students across the state of Michigan received the letter commending their achievements and encouraging application to the University, while parents and principals of these students later received similar letters. The students received waived application fees and additional guidance throughout the application process from University officials. In its first year, 262 students enrolled in the HAIL program.
This method of targeting played a large role in encouraging more students to apply to and attend the University. The study found previous programs of intervention using drab, unexcited letters often failed because families saw no legitimacy or encouragement in the message.
The study also found that students who were contacted through HAIL were more than twice as likely to apply to the University. Contacted students were also more likely to enroll in the University. Additionally, the income gap closed by half in the rate of college attendance among high-achieving students. The rate of attendance was 88 percent among upper-income students and 81 percent for the controlled group of low-income students, but for the treated low-income students the rate was 85 percent. Based off of these numbers, the researchers noted when an encouragement to apply and promised financial aid are communicated to students and families, the income gap can decrease substantially.
Public Policy professor Susan Dynarski was one of the researchers on the study. In an interview with the Universiy Record, Dynarski said the biggest barrier for low-income students is frequently a lack of information about financial aid opportunities. Low-income students often apply to less selective schools, believing they cannot succeed at or pay for more elite universities. This results in undermatching: a phenomenon where high-achieving, low socioeconomic status high school students end up at less competitive colleges not matching their academic success.
“Many promising students across Michigan don't know how affordable an excellent school can be, so they don't bother applying for admission or aid,” Dynarski said. “The HAIL Scholarship sends a powerful message that this world-class university is open to Michigan's talented students, regardless of their income.”
According to the paper, the first two years of the program showed the potential for targeted, personalized intervention to help alter college selection choice towards more selective, elite schools. The study found no diversion from other similarly selective schools. Rather, it found that these students were moving away from two-year and less selective programs. In particular, the researchers found the application rate of low-income students increased the most with high schools having no previous history of applications to the University.
However, the study warned similar replications for other universities or states may or may not return the same results. Researchers explained the University itself is set up well for a program like this.
“In several ways, Michigan is the perfect setting for a HAIL-like intervention,” the paper read. “The University of Michigan is the most selective, highest quality, and least expensive option for low-income students in Michigan…It is unlikely that inducing students to attend University of Michigan could make them worse off, financially or academically, in the short or long run.”
The researchers concluded an inexpensive outreach program like the HAIL scholarship can either be successful in its recruitment of low-income students, or detrimental if not carried out with care.
“When well-targeted, a HAIL-like intervention could substantially improve postsecondary outcomes for low-income students,” the paper said. “When poorly planned, or wielded by bad actors, it could do serious harm.”