From the Daily: Make the U more affordable

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 - 12:19pm

On Jan. 18, The New York Times’ The Upshot published a report with statistics detailing variation in student income on college campuses in the United States. The statistics reveal the University of Michigan’s disproportionately high number of wealthy students on campus. Sixty-six percent of students come from the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans, and only 3.6 percent come from the poorest 20 percent. The study fundamentally illustrates that the University is not doing enough to promote socioeconomic diversity on campus. The University must do more to promote socioeconomic diversity by more actively promoting financial aid and scholarships, as well as work to retain students once they come to the University through more affordable living.  

The University’s current policies to assist low-income students only go so far. While the HAIL scholarship, which provides full-ride scholarships to high-achieving, low-income students, is certainly a good start, it focuses on alleviating the student debt of a select few, rather than increasing socioeconomic diversity overall. Furthermore, the University must make sure that it is doing its part to make students more aware of the possible financial aid that is available to them. Financial aid documents are also long and often confusing, requiring months of rigorous financial work to grant students access to necessary assistance; the University needs to give students more tools to help them fill out these long and complicated forms to get the aid they need. In the 2011-2012 year, 2 million students qualified for federal aid, but about 14 percent of students didn’t know how to apply and 9 percent said it was too much work to apply. What’s more, the CSS profile is another requirement the University has for students who wish to apply for grants and scholarships, an even more comprehensive and detailed set of forms students applying for any University aid must fill out.

In light of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, the University must work to make campus more affordable once students have arrived, otherwise the DEI’s main goal to create a better campus climate won’t be enough to attract and retain students of low socioeconomic backgrounds. We also believe that the University must take a more active role in alleviating external costs that may create barriers to low-income students. A study by the Urban Institute shows that four-year institution room-and-board costs are growing significantly. While on-campus housing used to provide students with cheaper housing, this report shows it is now only 7 percent cheaper to live on-campus.

This problem is especially salient in Ann Arbor, as increasingly unaffordable housing creates obstacles for students who already find it difficult to pay their tuition. Compared to other Big Ten schools, on-campus housing at the University is on the more expensive end of the spectrum. In fact, many University students live in Ypsilanti instead of Ann Arbor because of steadily growing housing costs in Ann Arbor. Increasing programs to assist in these additional expenses would decrease obstacles to students.

Other schools around the country have been doing a considerably better job at promoting socioeconomic diversity on their campuses through several different specialized programs. Denison University, Grinnell College, University of Southern California and Williams College allocate extensive amounts of funds toward highly specialized programs that help recruit lower-income students and offer assistance with admissions. Denison and Williams fly in thousands of low-income students to tour their campuses and provide those students specialized assistance with applications free of charge. These initiatives can help explain why these colleges have greater socioeconomic diversity on campus.

In 1997, the state of Texas passed a bill in which the top 10 percent of students in each high school in Texas receive automatic admission to any public university in the state.  Though the bill was later ammended to allow universities like the University of Texas at Austin to limit automatic admits to the top 7 percent, this bill is still a good example for states and universites to follow. Although Texas’ 10 percent plan isn’t an entirely nuanced approach to increasing diversity on campus, it’s a step in the right direction in increasing lower-income students’ access to top public universities.

We believe that the University has a duty to act as an agent of upward social mobility. The University should streamline the financial aid process by removing the CSS Profile, while supplementing and increasing funding for programs like the HAIL Scholarship that are aimed at recruiting and retaining students from lower socioeconomic status homes. Once students arrive on campus, the University must work to retain students by providing low-income students means to cover Ann Arbor’s lofty living costs. Diversity is what makes any institution strong, and without increased steps to improve socioeconomic diversity to make our campus welcoming for all students, the University risks remaining socioeconomically divided.