I pride myself on “keeping it real” or “telling it like it is.” As expected, it can occasionally get me into trouble. Or sometimes, my realism and formulations may be altered in an attempt to morph my thoughts into what people want to hear … or maybe what they consider easier to handle. That being said, I am making the executive decision to keep it real regarding the topic I am about to discuss in an attempt to offer a fresh perspective and dialogue. Just a little food for thought. Hopefully I do not find myself in any trouble.

Last month, University of Michigan President Schlissel unveiled a new initiative titled the Go Blue Guarantee. Starting in January 2018, any current or future in-state student whose family earns $65,000 or less will be eligible for free tuition for four years. For the record, let me state, I think this is absolutely fantastic. There are some students who will benefit from this, giving them access to a stellar education which may have been a distant fantasy because of the ever-so-daunting tuition bill. However, if you noticed I used the word “some” to describe whom the Go Blue Guarantee will affect. This was entirely deliberate, because that’s just it. It will affect some but nowhere near close to a majority of students who need financial support at the University.

As an out-of-state student, recognizing none of this will affect me anyway, I was easily enamored by the words “free tuition” and the praise from the administration and alumni in the press and across social media. However, I realized that this initiative is kind of like fresh new wallpaper. Once you begin to peel back some of its allure, you find the same wall that you tried to cover up, which … in all honesty, isn’t that promising. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have tried to cover it up in the first place.  

As I started considering these thoughts, I became increasingly aware of the criticism I may receive regarding my opinion. It may come across as controversial or pessimistic to say the least. Hence my selection of the title for this piece. However, as I began conducting my research, I was surprised to find that I was not the only person who shared this viewpoint. A few days after the Go Blue Guarantee was introduced, I noticed a post from a Students4Justice activist on Facebook.

“Although half of the families in Michigan would qualify for this new financial aid initiative, how many of these students will actually have the chance to be accepted and to attend the University of Michigan?” it read. “This is not an initiative to bring more of these students to our campus. Let me know when UM’s initiatives will start to combat the disappearing Black population and other underrepresented communities of color.”

The reactions to her commentary were pretty split, as some illustrated their support through likes, while others debated in the comments. It was the Students4Justice activist’s post that triggered my own investigation. My findings shine light on a different outlook of the Go Blue Guarantee, and more importantly answers the question, what is this initiative actually doing?

At the beginning of this year, The New York Times published a set of data which reflected statistics regarding the socioeconomic status of students attending the University. Come to find out, the median family income at the University is $154,000, and 66 percent of the student body are identified as part of the top 20 percent income status. This is the highest median family income of the other 27 public colleges nationwide classified as “highly selective” that were polled. According to the 2015 U.S. Census, the median family income in the state of Michigan is $48,876 so it is indeed correct that half of the families in the state Michigan would qualify for the Go Blue Guarantee, yet, clearly these students don’t seem to attend the University. Why is that?

In the years since 2008, the proportion of low-income recent high school graduates who enroll in college has seen a significant drop. In 2008, 55.9 percent of low-income students enrolled in college; by 2013, that the rate drastically decreased to 45.5 percent. Looking at Michigan public high schools, specifically in the class of 2013, 87 percent of middle class and affluent students graduated on time compared to 64 percent from low-income households. Frightened by the burdensome task of figuring out how to pay for college, it seems as though low-income students are deciding to skip the ordeal altogether by choosing not to enroll in higher education programs at all. Additionally, it is no secret that wealthier schools send more students to college. According to Jordan Weissmann from Slate Magazine, “High-achieving, low-income students are rare. The Department of Education found that slightly less than 10 percent high schoolers from poorer families had top math scores, compared to 48 percent of those from wealthier backgrounds.” As an employee of the Office of Admissions, I know statistics regarding admissions like the back of my hand. They include a 28.6 percent acceptance rate, mid-50th percent range ACT composite of 31-34 and an average GPA of 3.87. Low-income students, especially coming from underdeveloped and poverty-stricken schools, are extraordinarily pressed to hit these requirements and, more often than not, simply don’t.

No one expects the University to accept every student; however, I think it is fair to say that no one expects it to utterly lack diversity in terms of its student body either. This initiative becomes questionable when examining its attempt to attract more low-income students to campus simply because of the systemic obstacles in place which prevent these types of students from receiving admittance to the University in general. How can the Go Blue Guarantee be effective if the students it targets cannot even fit the criteria to be considered for acceptance at the University? This, paired with the freshman resident enrollment decline of 8.3 percent since 2010 proves to marginalize even further the students who can actually benefit from the Go Blue Guarantee.

Could there instead be a revitalized admissions initiative which adamantly recognizes the difference in backgrounds of certain applicants? This could provide someone with good performance who, based on test scores, would have a minimal chance of going to a institution like the University and deemed low-income with an opportunity to succeed and achieve here. Are admissions counselors actively participating in events to recruit students from underdeveloped or minority high schools? Are low-income students provided with the same resources and opportunities to learn more about and engage with the University that I, as a student at a high-achieving private high school, was? Were the same persistent outreach tactics enacted by admissions that I found myself bombarded with also received by the students the Go Blue Guarantee provides for? These are all questions to consider when noting the development of a program which grants money to students who, as of now, can barely get their foot in the door.

A brief note to the final point on the activist’s post: in 2015, the total number of Black students enrolled at the University was 1,801. That is, 1,801 out of 43,651 total students, which just scrapes the 4 percent mark. The percentage of Black students decreased by a margin of 0.51 points for the 2020 graduating class. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan is designed to combat this problem over a long-term period as it is a five-year strategic plan. The Go Blue Guarantee is essentially effective immediately, impacting incoming students and even those who qualify and already attend the University now. Compare this to students of color on campus now who more than likely would have graduated before reaping any benefits and observing tangible progress from the DEI initiative. Clearly it is possible for the University to hastily identify a problem and establish an initiative to bring about change regarding its solution. Therefore, it is interesting to see the stagnant approach taken to develop one regarding the decreasing population of color within the student body. Food for thought.

Diversity presents itself in many forms. It is not limited to the color of our skin, what language we speak or our religion to name a few examples.

The question then becomes, what is the University actually doing to reflect it?

Stephanie Mullings can be reached at srmulli@umich.edu

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