University ranks last in economic mobility and diversity among elite public colleges

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Noah Sherbin

 

Thursday, January 19, 2017 - 9:12pm

Though the University of Michigan is currently embarking upon a series of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives, the University still ranks low nationally in socioeconomic diversity among students.

According to a recent report by the Equality of Opportunity Project — further covered in the New York Times' The Upshot — the median family income of a student at the University is $154,000 — the highest of 27 public colleges classified as “highly selective.”

The Upshot also highlighted that 66 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution, while 9.3 percent of the student body come from the top 1 percent of the income distribution alone, also the highest of the 27 institutions. Just 3.6 percent of students hail from the bottom 20 percent of income levels. 

Additionally, the University ranked last out of 25 highly selective public colleges and all Big Ten schools in terms of economic social mobility. The Upshot estimates only 10 percent of University alumni moved up two or more income quintiles. Stony Brook University in New York came in first with 34 percent and University of California-Irvine placed second with 27 percent.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said it will take time for the DEI initiatives to make significant gains, but there are many promising programs in the works the University has already benefitted from.  

Regarding new enrollment in the class of 2016, Fitzgerald noted first generation students made up 14 percent of the freshman class, up from 8.5 percent in 2015. The percent of Pell Grant-eligible students was 17 percent in 2016, up from 15 percent, and it has been on the rise in recent years. He added that the transfer student enrollees — a group which, he said, consists of relatively more first generation students, lower income students and students of underrepresented minorities — has increased.

“Even though the freshman class is just one snapshot, one class, all of those (efforts) are moving in the right direction,” he said. “It’s an indication that we’re working on this; we’re making some progress, and this will take some time.”

A five-year DEI plan released in October and spearheaded by University President Mark Schlissel offers a series of initiatives aiming to improve overall campus climate by encouraging the recognition and inclusion of students from all backgrounds. Fitzgerald also mentioned the HAIL Scholarship Program, a DEI program that aims to reach students from low-income families in Michigan — welcomed 262 recipients as of October.

The effort is still being evaluated for future improvements, but according to Fitzgerald, has been successful so far.

“HAIL is not only a scholarship program aimed at low-income, high-achieving students, but also a test of a new way of communicating with those students and trying to reduce some of those barriers that we know exist for lower-income students to apply to a place like the University of Michigan,” he said.

In an interview with the Daily in November, Kedra Ishop, the vice provost for enrollment management, said the program is a direct effort to expand economic diversity at the University.

“The HAIL scholarship is a terrific example of our deliberate efforts to bring in people from different backgrounds and of our efforts to inform prospective applicants that a Michigan education can be affordable,” Ishop said. “And this wasn’t necessarily a policy-driven change, but more of a shift in messaging. We want high-achieving students to know that you should still apply even if you are unsure of how to pay for college because cost should not be a factor. The University can help (your needs).”

LSA senior Sean Javares-Dajour Smith, who identifies with a lower SES, said he does not think the University is integrated in regard to different financial backgrounds. He said he thinks the University “compensate(s)” for admitting students from a lower SES by admitting students from out-of-state who will pay full tuition.

“There are still students coming from out-of-state, from that higher SES,” he said. “(The University is) doing that to make up the difference with the state giving less funding. There’s been budget cuts.”

The University faced a 21.6 percent cut in funding from the state in 2011 and in 2015, University officials cited the cut as a reason for increasing tuition rates. Though they did not note an increase in out-of-state enrollment, these numbers also continue to rise. State funding, meanwhile, slowly reapproaches pre-2011 levels.

Smith understands why more out-of-state students are being accepted given the circumstances, but said students from a lower SES are being neglected.  

“They might have a focus on us, but at the same time, I think that they’re targeting out-of-state students,” he said. “They’re giving them priority. As a result of that, you’ve got students from inner cities, urbanized suburbs and rural areas who kind of get left out of the picture.”

Another program aimed at improving economic diversity on campus called Wolverine Pathways,seeks to be a more long-term initiative, in which middle-school and high-school students from nearby areas like Ypsilanti and Southfield will have the chance to earn a full scholarship to the University. Through the program, students will work with tutors and other mentors who will help prepare them to apply to the University.

The University is also a co-founder of the new American Talent Initiative, a partnership among serveral universities and colleges launched in December to boost the population of low-income student attending top American universities.

Fitzgerald also noted the net price of attending the University — the cost of attendance minus financial aid — is lower than the national average, and significantly lower than some of the University’s competitors such as Michigan State University, in-state, and Northwestern University, out-of-state.

Fitzgerald also referenced an Upshot graph showing a University of Michigan education often leads to a higher-paying job than peer institutions. According to the report, Michigan came in third out of 25 highly selective public colleges, with a median student income of $68,700 at age 34.

“That underscores what some other reports, including the Department of Education’s college scorecard, said about being a good value, a good investment, because it pays off,” Fitzgerald said. “The median salary for our graduates following graduation, some reports show as much as $25,000 higher than the national average.”

In general, Fitzgerald said, the University is moving toward improvement.

“Even with all of those things that we know are not where we want to be with socioeconomic diversity … that is a component of the DEI strategic plan, and all kinds of diversity," he said, "including socioeconomic diversity, is something that we’ll continue to work on."

Smith offered the best tactic may be to increase enrollment of students from lower-income families and promote these students to be ambassadors.

“If (the University) gave us more opportunity, we’ll spark (students') imagination and the perception of U of M being inaccessible to low income students — maybe we’ll be able to dispel that myth, maybe we’ll be able to break that down,” he said. “I think their greatest asset and outreach program is to let more of us in. We’re the greatest ambassadors they could have.”

Smith explained he was surprised to have received the amount of financial aid that he did, and that students from a lower SES may not be aware of the opportunities the University offers.

Correction: This article has been updated to specify that the report covered in the New York Times' The Upshot was by the Equality of Opportunity Project.