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For LSA junior Ryan Bennett, the High Achieving Involved Leader scholarship was the deciding factor in his decision to apply to the University of Michigan.
Before receiving the large, embellished mailing from the University in his junior year of high school commending his academic achievements and encouraging him to apply, Bennett had not considered U-M. Finding out he could receive four years of free tuition changed Bennet's mind.
“My eyes weren’t even set on Michigan yet, because I knew I wanted to do film, so I was just looking at schools out west,” Bennett said. “I ended up getting a package in the mail from U of M that I didn’t even open up. Later on, a couple of weeks after I got it, I decided to open it up and learned that I got the HAIL stuff, and it was obviously a life-changing experience because it turned my eyes onto Michigan. I learned about how I could make my interests come to fruition there, and ultimately, it was the scholarship that made a big impact on my choice to go here.”
In collaboration with the University, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a report analyzing the success of the HAIL — a scholarship aimed to help low-income, high-achieving students attend the University without having to worry about paying school tuition. Researchers found targeted students were twice as likely to both apply and enroll at the University than those students not contacted.
“We find very large effects of the HAIL scholarship offer on application and enrollment rates at the University of Michigan and more generally on college choice,” the report reads. “The likelihood of application to the University of Michigan more than doubled, from 26 percent among controls to 67 percent among students offered treatment. The share enrolling at any highly selective college more than doubled, from 13 perfect to 28 percent, with this effect operating completely through enrollment at University of Michigan.”
As a field experiment, researchers wanted to analyze whether or not targeting specific students who were low-income and high-achieving would increase their application rate, as well as the enrollment rate. After finding notable increases in both rates, the study concluded encouragement for these students to apply to the University, as well as a promise of financial aid, could assist in increasing the numbers of low-socioeconomic-status students at the University.
Two groups of students were analyzed. The first were the “treated” students, students targeted by the University through elaborate mailings and letters, encouraging them to apply to the University and guaranteeing a scholarship to cover their entire tuition should they be admitted. Packets received by families included a letter from University President Mark Schlissel encouraging the student to apply, a flyer describing the application process, brochures about the University and fee-waiving coupons for the Common Application, the FAFSA and the CSS profile.
The second group was the control group. Students in this cohort receive the mailings and were treated the way they would have been a few years ago before the idea of HAIL was realized. According to the study, the goal of HAIL was to address common problems low-income students face when applying to college in high school.
“The intervention, the ‘HAIL Scholarship,’ was designed to address three issues that research shows affect the college choices of low-income, high-achieving students: uncertainty about their suitability for an elite school, over-estimates of the (net) cost of college, and procedural barriers such as financial aid forms,” the report reads.
Susan Dynarski, public policy professor and researcher of college tuition policy, said students who could attend the University simply do not apply because they believe they cannot afford the tuition. The goal of HAIL was to change this idea.
“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.”
In an interview with The Daily, Schlissel commented on the success of HAIL in bringing more low-income and first-generation students to the school. HAIL lent a new type of outreach for the University to students from all over Michigan, and he hopes this will increase the University’s reputation as an outstanding educational opportunity.
“The HAIL Scholarship program really completely revolutionized the way we reach out to people in different parts of the Michigan economy,” Schlissel said. “The early data — it’s only been one admissions cycle — but this year’s freshman class has increased its fraction of first-generation students, has increased its representation of students from the lower socioeconomic quadrants or quintiles of the economy and it’s exceeded our expectations and we’re going to stick with it. And not only that, the study got national attention.”
In its first year, HAIL brought in 262 low-income, in-state students, each receiving four years of tuition covered — totaling about $60,000 in scholarship money per student. According to the study, these students would have been eligible for the free tuition whether or not HAIL existed. Eligible rising seniors were notified through elaborate maize and blue emblazoned mailings in high school, and parents and principals received letters commending the students’ academic achieving and notifying of the opportunity for free tuition.
The study reports a difference between schools that higher- versus lower-income students choose when applying and enrolling in college. Despite having the same academic success, lower-income students are less likely to attend similar universities to their higher-income counterparts.
“Among students whose academic achievement makes them plausible candidates for University of Michigan, low-income students are four percentage points less likely to attend any postsecondary institution than their similarly-qualified, higher-income peers,” the report reads. “Gaps in college selectivity are yet wider than gaps in college attendance: low-income students are 8 percentage points less likely to attend a highly selective (e.g. the University of Michigan) or most selective institution.”
According to the study, more selective institutions can usually give more financial aid to students than less selective schools. In the case of the state of Michigan, the only institution less expensive than the University would technically be a community college.
Bennett agreed with the study, saying HAIL has increased the numbers of low-SES students on campus, and said it has so far been successful in making a school usually attended by wealthier students accessible for lower-income students.
“I think it’s the most obvious outcome that’s going to come from this program,” he said. “We all know Ann Arbor, University of Michigan — it’s a rich school. Students who don’t usually have a lot of problems paying for things go to the University of Michigan. So I think it’s pretty obvious that the HAIL scholarship is finally allowing lower-income people who are still worthy and still intelligent and still deserving to have a chance to study at a good school.”
LSA junior Ashley Soto said she, too, has noticed an increase in lower-income students on campus, as well as students from her high school in Grand Rapids who are now attending the University with HAIL.
“A lot of the students who came after me and the students who came with me in my year — a lot of them are HAIL recipients,” Soto said. “And the reason they can come to U of M is because of the scholarship. So I think HAIL has been a good thing for the community of low-SES students, and I think it was the right step in getting more students.”
The University used state administrative data, student transcripts and data from the universal college testing program, a program that requires all high school students in Michigan to take the SAT for free and during school hours, to find successful students eligible for free tuition.
To Bennett, the University targeting him specifically for the scholarship and having the ability to target fellow students specifically is a strong step in the right direction for attracting lower-income students.
“I think what they do well is seeking out those kids who deserve a chance to go to a good school who normally wouldn’t be able to afford it,” he said. “You know, I really had no contact with Michigan until they reached out to me. And just the fact that they can go through each school and discover kids who deserve that kind of opportunity, I think that’s what they do best.”
Schlissel noted increased targeting of potential high achieving students, and telling students they could receive free tuition, as opposed to need-based financial aid, was what helped the HAIL study succeed.
“One of the main take-homes from the HAIL Scholars program is in the setting of this high-touch interaction with potential students,” Schlissel said. “Instead of saying to them, if you say we give generous need-based financial aid and we’ll meet your full calculated need, if you say to them, ‘If you come from a family at or below a family income of 65,000 dollars, you don’t pay any tuition – it’s free,’ it turns out that’s really powerful and the HAIL study, it increased the frequency of applicants two-and-a-half fold compared to a control group.”
The HAIL study reports barriers like filling out financial aid forms are one of the main reasons low-income students choose not to apply to more elite institutions. In fact, the study reports the personalized mailing emphasized students would not need to fill out a FAFSA form or complete a CSS profile to receive the free tuition. They were encouraged to fill the forms out to receive additional aid, and the fees could be waived.
However, both Soto and Bennett pointed out issues in guidance from the HAIL program when it came to paying for other components like books and housing, which are not covered by HAIL. Both could only think of one advisor or point person for all of the HAIL program, and Bennett suggested more advisors could help resolve the lack of interaction between students and program administrators.
Soto said some issues relating to affordability and managing personal finances are out of the University’s control. However, she wishes there were more prominent resources from both HAIL and the school itself to advise students seeking help.
“There are a lot of things that the school probably can’t control as far as housing around campus and the prices of meals off-campus,” Soto said. “I do think that maybe more point people or more resources that are more prevalent and made more accessible would help. Because I don’t doubt that some of these things don’t exist, it’s just I don’t know where they are. I know a lot of people don’t know where they are.”
The report states Michigan is the ideal state for this type of intervention, where the University of Michigan fully meets financial need based on its financial aid formulas, and where it is the most elite and highest quality university in its state. However, the researchers warns their experiment’s claimed success may not be replicated the same way in other states.
“Schools and states considering a HAIL-like intervention should therefore carefully examine students’ choice sets before launching a similar program,” the report reads. “In a setting with multiple highly-selective schools, for example, schools could jointly make an aid guarantee. This would equalize the cost of the options, allowing the student to choose the school that best fits her academic needs.”
Although the program lacks the guidance many HAIL recipients need, to her and Bennett it is still a step in the right direction. Soto has noted an increase in her circles of low-SES students, and in membership of first generation student organization – she found many of these students were also HAIL recipients.
“The school still has a long way to go for accommodating new low-SES students on campus,” Soto said. “But the fact that we’re more present on campus is a great thing, still.”
Correction: This article has been updated to include information previously unpublished.