HAIL Scholars: Increasing Economic Diversity at a Flagship University


College enrollment trends in Michigan mirror those nationwide. Students from low-income backgrounds are much less likely to enroll in and complete college compared to students from higher-income backgrounds. Some argue that this is largely due to differences in academic preparation for college, but recent evidence refutes this claim, illustrating that gaps in college-going remain even after controlling for achievement differences. In addition to the income-based gap in college attendance, new evidence points to an additional income-based gap: the college quality gap. These patterns have led researchers to seek ways to increase the representation of low-income students at elite institutions.

EPI researchers and University of Michigan administrators developed and piloted the HAIL scholarship research program aimed at at attracting low-income, high-achieving students to consider, apply to and matriculate at the university. Together with the administrators, we implemented a randomized controlled trial designed to encourage more low-income, high-achieving students to apply and matriculate to the University of Michigan. The project address three issues known to affect college application behavior among low-income, high-achieving students: uncertainty about their suitability for an elite school, over-estimates by students and parents of the net cost of college, and procedural barriers such as aid applications. The intervention targeted low-income, high-achieving students in Michigan, as well as their parents and their principals.This effort is the precursor to the Go Blue Guarantee launched in summer 2017.

Building on prior research that indicates the importance of college selectivity for college completion and economic mobility, results from this study will help inform whether a low-cost intervention can increase the likelihood that low-income, high-achieving students not only apply to and enroll in highly selective institutions but also graduate from those schools.

Who will Use the Research?

Researchers, administrators and policymakers who are interested in identifying best practices for increasing enrollment and graduation rates of low-income students at highly-selective institutions. Indeed, the pilot program helped spur the Go Blue Guarantee, a new scholarship program announced by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel in June 2017 that pledges four years of free tuition for admitted in-state students whose families earn less than $65,000 per year.


2018: Closing the Gap: The Effect of Targeted, Tuition-Free Promise on College Choices of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

Susan Dynarski, C.J. Labissi, Katherine Michelmore, & Stephanie Owen

Low-income students, even those with strong academic credentials, are unlikely to attend a highly selective college. With a field experiment, we test an intervention to increase enrollment of low-income students at the highly selective University of Michigan. We contact students (as well as their parents and principals) with an encouragement to apply and a promise of four years of free tuition and fees upon admission. Materials emphasize that this offer is not contingent on completing aid applications (e.g., the FAFSA or PROFILE). Treated students were more than twice as likely to apply to (67 percent vs. 26 percent) and enroll at (27 percent vs. 12 percent) the University of Michigan. There was no diversion from schools as (or more) selective as UM. The enrollment effect of 15 percentage points (pp) comprises students who would otherwise attend a less selective, four-year college (7 pp), a community college (4 pp), or no college (4 pp). Effects persist through two years of follow-up. The intervention closed by half the income gaps in college choice among Michigan's high-achieving students. We conclude that an encouragement to apply, paired with a promise of aid, when communicated to students and influential adults, can substantially close income gaps in college choices.

[Download the EPI working paper]