The University received a report card last week. It didn’t come in the mail, but in a study of flagship public universities by The Education Trust – and the University’s marks show definite room for improvement. The grade that stuck out was the glaring “F” the University received for providing (or rather, not providing) adequate access to low-income students.
While the study’s techniques were perhaps not the most precise imaginable, the failing mark the University received shows that it is struggling to maintain any semblance of a reputation as an affordable public institution. With the continual increase in the cost of higher education in this state and around the country, the University needs to educate students about financial aid options and implement measures to lessen the anxiety many prospective students have about paying for their education.
The study looked at each state’s top public university, and the findings have been hard to swallow for many administrators around the country. Most schools received failing grades in at least one of the study’s three key categories: minority student access, minority student success and low-income student access. While these low grades should serve as a wake-up call to public colleges and universities, the organization’s grading scale may not reflect reality completely accurately. It is clear that the nonpartisan organization, whose slogan is “closing the achievement gap,” has good intentions with its report. The methods it used, though, are less than perfect.
For starters, the study’s method for determining accessibility to low-income students was comparing the number of Pell grants distributed to students at a specific school to the number distributed throughout the entire state where the school is located. This method provides at best a limited perspective on students’ financial situation. Another problem with the study that hurt the University of Michigan’s grade is the technique used for comparing data from 1992 and 2004 to assess long-term trends. In assessing the number of students at the University who received Pell grants in 1992, the organization included the Flint and Dearborn campuses, both of which have less affluent student bodies than the Ann Arbor campus. In 2004, those two campuses were left out, giving the false appearance of a drastic drop-off in low-income students.
Despite these failings, the study doesn’t need to be terribly refined to tell us that the University is not accessible to many students and that many Michigan residents choose to attend other schools because of this institution’s sticker price.
There are obvious steps the University can take to be more accessible to all students. Better advertising of financial aid options could help more students understand that the cost of the University could be much lower depending on their financial need. As the administration has pointed out, many students underestimate amount of financial aid available to them – suggesting that making sure prospective students know about the several sources of aid available to them could make the price tag appear far less overwhelming.
Without a drastic reversal of a decades-long trend of decreased support from the state government for public universities, this institution will continue to grapple with accessibility for a long time. The passage of Proposal 2, by making it harder for the University to reach out to minority communities, will make its challenges all the greater. The University must continue to look for ways to give out more need-based grant money – Regent Kathy White’s suggestion of requiring donors for building projects to designate a portion of their gifts for financial aid would be a good start. But clever marketing strategies to provide assurance about the actual cost of education also have a place in the fight for accessibility.