NEWS BRIEFS: Michigan’s Strategy For Increasing Enrollment Of Higher-Performing, Lower-Income Students

And what a simple strategy it is…once a university makes the financial commitment….


David Leonhardt, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times

It’s fashionable to question the value of a four-year college degree. But three basic facts continue to make clear how valuable such a degree is:
One, college graduates fare better by virtually every available metric — income, wealth, health, life satisfaction and more. Two, careful studies suggest that college plays a causal role in improving people’s lives. And, three, virtually everyone with the ability to send their own children to college — including people who are publicly skeptical of education — does so.
Unfortunately, most working-class and poor teenagers, including many who excel in high school, still don’t graduate from college. They often enroll in colleges that have a high dropout rate and never finish.
Yesterday, four social scientists released the results of a fascinating experiment designed to address this problem. The experiment was a big success — and it wasn’t even very complicated.
The researchers sent personalized packets of information to hundreds of high-performing, lower-income students in Michigan. A letter inside encouraged them to apply to the University of Michigan, one of the best public universities in the country. The letter also promised that if the students were admitted, they would receive a full scholarship, including free tuition, room, and board.
In truth, the packet wasn’t promising anything new to most students. Those receiving it typically had good enough grades and test scores to be admitted to Michigan, as well as a family income low enough to qualify them for a full scholarship.
And yet the experiment nonetheless had a huge effect.
Some 67 percent of students who received the packets applied to Michigan, compared with 26 percent of a control group of similar students who did not. And 28 percent of recipients ended up enrolling in a top university (most of them at Michigan), compared with only 13 percent of the control group. Many members of the control group didn’t attend any college, despite being excellent high-school students.
This simple approach obviously won’t come close to solving the college gap between rich and poor. (Doing that will require lifting the graduation rate at places less elite than the University of Michigan.) But the experiment is still important.
It shows that many, many more students from modest backgrounds should be attending universities from which they’re likely to graduate — and that getting them to enroll isn’t very difficult. It is a matter of encouraging them to do so and making sure the financial aid remains available.
“Bottom line: we can help close income gaps in college attendance,” Katharine Strunk of Michigan State tweeted yesterday in response to the new study. “Resulting question: why aren’t we doing this more?”
Susan Dynarski, one of the researchers, told me yesterday that she had already heard from many people interested in starting a similar program at other colleges. I would hope so.
To learn more, you can read the research paper. (The other authors are Katherine Michelmore, C.J. Libassi, and Stephanie Owen.) You can also follow Dynarski on Twitter.
And you can read a 2004 Times story I wrote from Ann Arbor, Mich., which included this sentence: “More members of this year’s freshman class at the University of Michigan have parents making at least $200,000 a year than have parents making less than the national median of about $53,000 … ”

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