University of Michigan alum Lehman Robinson applied to his now alma mater on a whim. As a first-generation college student coming from a low-income household, he assumed the school would be out of his family’s means — until he received his financial aid notice. Six years later, he said he’s still grateful for his aid package, which covered much of his tuition. Still, he had no idea what was in store when he applied.

Robinson would now be covered by the University’s new Go Blue Guarantee: a commitment to free tuition for in-state undergraduate students on the Ann Arbor campus with family incomes under $65,000. Set to go into effect in January 2018, the announcement was publicly revealed at the Board of Regents meeting June 15. Even though the 3,000 students currently on campus under that financial threshold already typically receive full aid, the guarantee succeeded in making national headlines as a model of affordable higher education.

University officials’ comments last week centered around breaking down perceptions of the University as cost prohibitive.

“I think about the seventh grader in Ypsilanti or Detroit or Grand Rapids whose mom or dad can say to them, ‘Work hard. Do well in school. You can go to the University of Michigan,’ ” University President Mark Schlissel said Thursday. “There are a lot of folks now that can’t really say that because they don’t know if they can afford it.” 

Will the University’s bet — that a public, visible commitment to financial aid will boost low-income students’ application rates — pay off?

Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, said the University’s preliminary analysis indicates such signaling messages can be that powerful. Much of the University’s impetus for the guarantee came from the two-year-old HAIL Scholars program, an initiative offering “high-achieving, low-income students” with four years of free tuition. Last fall, 262 freshmen arrived on campus after being directly pursued through HAIL; select high schools in low-income target areas received application waivers, communication to parents and school advisers and packages complete with a note from Schlissel.  

Though final results have yet to be released, Ishop said early HAIL analyses were enough to convince administrators of the guarantee, with application rates at target schools rising by as much as 43 percent.

“That was almost a two-and-a-half-fold increase,” Ishop said. “We’re taking what HAIL taught us, and going public with a version of that specific commitment.”

HAIL draws from national studies like that of Stanford Economics Prof. Caroline Hoxby, who found in 2013 a “vast majority of low-income, high achievers do not apply to any selective college” — even though less competitive schools might mean higher out-of-pocket costs.

“Telling students we’ll meet all demonstrated need … that language can get complicated,” Ishop said. “This signals the element of achievement and aspiration — if a student wants a high-quality institution like ours, they have to aspire and work hard. But by taking cost off the table, that allows them to be in the space of achievement and aspiration a little bit differently than if they just decide they can’t pay for it anyway.”

Robinson spent a year in the Michigan College Advising Corps mentoring students in that space, often working to persuade first-generation and low-income students they were qualified enough to apply to schools like the University.  

“These kids, they just don’t know from the outside looking in,” he said. “When I went back to my own high school to advise, there were all these notions of me being stuck-up or that they could never get there. Even though they had the scores and GPA, it’s a matter of access. They just don’t know this information — and neither did I.”

Misperceptions of financial aid can often swing the other way, with many assuming free tuition for some students means more cost for others. That tuition rates for the 2017-18 school year increased by 2.9 percent for in-state students and 4.5 percent for out-of-state students didn’t help. Last week, the Detroit News published an editorial titled “Free not always a great deal,” blasting the University for offering the guarantee at the expense of middle-class students. The editorial cites Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R), who voted against the tuition hikes June 15 and said middle-class families would be “priced out of the opportunity for the world-class education available at the University of Michigan.”

Schlissel fired back with a letter to the editor Wednesday, arguing the University has really “made college achievement easier for this critical and financially challenged segment of the population.”

The $12 million to $16 million price tag on the guarantee — a high estimate — he explained, comes not from other students’ tuitions but a growing financial aid budget for all students with demonstrated need.

The University has increased its financial aid by an average of 10 percent per year over the last decade, compared to an average hike of 4 percent in tuition. Ishop also noted 89 percent of families with incomes of $95,000 to $120,000 received scholarships and grant support equivalent of 55 percent of tuition.

Still, though, in a study released by the Equality of Opportunity project last year, the University ranked last in socioeconomic diversity among elite public colleges. Sixty-six percent of students come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution, and the student body’s median family income is $154,000, or more than 81 percent higher than the state median.

As such, the cost of attending the University comprises factors from textbook fees to the ever-soaring cost of living in Ann Arbor, barriers which the guarantee doesn’t necessarily mitigate. Campus climate, many low-income students charge, is inaccessible to lower-income brackets.

“We have work to do there,” Ishop admitted. “We’re working hard through (the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) plan to ensure students aren’t just here for reporting figures, but to ensure they have an authentic experience on campus. Income is a cross-cutting identity with factors like race and family background — and we’re still trying to understand ourselves as a campus in that way.”

Robinson said he often experienced assumptions about his qualifications from his peers on the basis of both his class and race.

“I’m a tall Black guy — people thought I was on the athletic scholarship,” Robinson said of his peers’ attitudes. “Or people thought I was only there for affirmative action — it’s been banned since like 2006. Being around that is very toxic and also taxing.”

Resources like the Comprehensive Studies Program and Summer Bridge Scholars Program aim to acclimate many lower-income and first-generation students to the campus’ academic rigor and community culture. Robinson said these programs would have to be expanded alongside the guarantee in order to ease students’ transitions.

“There are many more first-generation low-income students who didn’t make the cut for Bridge but were offered admission anyways,” he said.

Ishop said officials are planning for an up to 25 percent bump in low-income student applications, but the moving parts in accessibility and affordability mean a marked shift in campus demographics isn’t quite a guarantee.

“It’s about telling these students that we want you here, we want you to stay, we want you to graduate with a Michigan degree,” Robinson said. “The University … they’re heading in the right way.”

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