With the approval of the University of Michigan’s 2021-2022 budget, it is clear that making the University more accessible to low-income students was a priority. This year’s approval is in contrast to the Board of Regents’ initial failure in June 2020 to approve a budget for the University’s 2020-2021 school year, where the board was split 4-4 and tuition hikes were the contentious issue. This time around, a 6.4% increase in the financial aid budget for undergraduate students was approved, and the decision received notable support from many administrators, including University President Mark Schlissel, Regent Paul Brown (D) and Board Chairwoman Denise Ilitch (D).
To support the increased financial aid budget, the board approved tuition increases for in-state and out-of-state students. In defending the budget increases, Schlissel said they were essential in getting financial aid to the students who need it. Brown expressed similar sentiments in an interview with The Michigan Daily, in which he argued that the tuition increase would be beneficial to the University’s affordability efforts. However, Brown claimed in an interview with The Daily that the financial aid low-income students receive is coming mostly from the tuition of high-income students: “It’s no secret that we have a lot of need-based aid, and much of that is paid for by (the) tuition of those of means.” While it is positive that the newly approved budget will help students in need, it shouldn’t be framed as if low-income students are only able to attend college because high-income students are generous enough to foot the bill. Doing so diminishes the value and importance of having students from all socioeconomic backgrounds on campus.
Board members and administrators framed the increase as directly benefiting low-income students who receive financial aid. While some of that tuition increase may go toward the increased financial aid, the funds from the tuition increases could be used toward anything, including expanded mental health resources and the new $15 minimum wage for U-M employees that were laid out in the approved budget. Even in last year’s debates between the board over the University’s fiscal year 2021 budget, a robin hood-like framing was used to justify tuition increases. Regent Michael Behm (D) stated that “the tuition increase will be borne by those who can afford to pay it.” Regent Mark Bernstein (D) agreed that the tuition increase would help “to keep college affordable for those students who need the most financial help.” That framing only exacerbates thoughts that it is only through the generosity of high-income students that low-income students can attend college. Regardless of the socioeconomic makeup of a college, financial aid programs offer merit and identity-based scholarships, even to students who don’t have a financial need for them. Colleges and schools within the University have a host of scholarships that don’t require demonstrating financial need. However, there was never a mention of the financial aid that is provided to students that aren’t low-income as being paid for by high-income students.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that financial aid is only one of the many things a university diverts its funds toward. When students pay for their tuition, they don’t get to choose where their money is allocated, so it’s unfair to low-income students receiving financial aid to propagate this idea that their ability to attend college is due solely to their better-off classmates paying full tuition. Financial aid is taken from the University’s General Fund, in which 14.1% of the 2021 funding came from the state of Michigan. Because only 13.1% of the 2021 General Fund budget was spent on financial aid, the money the University received from the state was sufficient to cover all financial aid the University provides to low-income students. However, during the June 2021 U-M Regents Meeting, it was never mentioned that the entirety of the financial aid budget could be covered by other funding sources. Instead, several administrators directly tied the tuition increase that would be borne by high-income students to the financial aid low-income students receive.
To frame the financial aid budget increase in that manner only encourages hostility between peers of different socioeconomic classes. Paying the tuition for a college you attend should never be treated like an act of charity, where the benefit low-income students will bring to campus and to society is overlooked. While a university may benefit financially from a high-income student who pays full tuition, a low-income student whose education was subsidized may very well contribute more to a university. There is a reason, besides the fact that it is the equitable thing to do, that colleges are putting more emphasis on supporting low-income students, exemplified at our university by the Go Blue Guarantee.
One of the most obvious reasons that universities are willing to invest in low-income students is that having socioeconomic diversity on campus provides an abundance of different perspectives. Low-income students’ unique experiences can bring new points of view. Having students who can meaningfully contribute their perspectives in the classroom and on campus is paramount to preparing students for the diversity they are likely to run into in the workforce. Learning to appreciate diversity and understand a situation through the lens of someone of a different background is a critical skill for all soon-to-be professionals. Without low-income students on campus sharing their experiences, getting a variety of perspectives is much more difficult.
Low-income students who have faced adversity may also have the empathy and compassion that students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds may lack. A study done at the University of California, Berkeley found that student participants with lower socioeconomic backgrounds engaged in more polite behaviors during conversations with strangers, like laughing and expressing interest through eyebrow raising, than their peers with higher socioeconomic statuses. The empathy, compassion and kindness that low-income students can bring to campus can go a long way in creating a more inclusive environment. With rising levels of hate crimes and discrimination occurring on college campuses across the country, creating an empathetic and compassionate student body will be key in combatting these issues.
The University of Michigan, like over 1,000 other colleges across the country, is a public institution. Many public universities were established as free to students. This was due to the societal perception of college educations as beneficial to the public good. Because it was valued as a public good, public colleges were willing to provide students education at little cost, whether by giving scholarships to students in need or by simply not charging tuition. While the public benefit of people with college educations hasn’t changed, the free tuition model certainly has. Making college accessible to low-income students through financial aid is not only supporting the ideals that created the public higher education system, but also continuing to provide the public with graduates who can contribute to the betterment of society. Ensuring that students can attend public universities should always be a top priority for public colleges, regardless of a student’s financial circumstances.
Too often, low-income students on college campuses are stereotyped as charity cases whose college admittance was a handout from the university and their well-endowed peers and students. That narrative overlooks the benefits low-income students bring to campus and the classroom. As a society, we must recognize the importance of college graduates in creating a globally competitive economy, a civically engaged society and a country working to eliminate inequities. Efforts by colleges to increase their student body’s socioeconomic diversity must go beyond just admitting low-income students. Creating an inclusive environment that encourages low-income students to use their perspectives and experiences for the betterment of campus should be a top priority for any college claiming to care about diversity.
Theodora Vorias is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.