How Michigan schools are increasing numbers of high-achieving, low-income college applicants

When John Dignan was young, he had an ever-present voice of support and encouragement in his life.


That voice belonged to his grandfather, and it said work hard and apply to college.


“My grandfather was the constant cheerleader who put in my mind that I was going to college. He was the coach that helped me personally. He gave me advice for taking the ACT, and he helped me complete my college applications.”


Dignan earned a football scholarship to Michigan State University, a success he attributes to his grandfather’s unfailing support. Dignan’s mother and father were first-generation college students, and served as role models about the life-changing potential of education, especially for income-challenged students.


Dignan now serves as director of post-secondary options and community partnerships with Southfield Public Schools, working directly with first generation and income-challenged students who do not have the level of support needed to overcome barriers to higher education.


John Dignan. Photo by David Lewinski.“The biggest thing is proving to kids that they have access to education,” Dignan says. “There is fear from an economic standpoint of how am I going to pay for this?”


Families, especially those of first-generation college students, may feel uncomfortable with the practice of sharing tax information, the current method for determining eligibility for federal and state financial aid.


“The FAFSA can be intimidating,” says Dignan. “The name itself sounds like a battleship or something. A lot of times, parents want to advocate but don’t know how to navigate the process with their kids. They don’t want to show their kids they don’t know. It’s a heck of a quandary to be in as a parent.”


Students who undermatch


As expected, students from wealthy families apply to college at higher rates than peers from income-challenged families. And the schools they do apply to are not selective universities rich with resources and high graduation rates.


In “The Privileged Poor,” a 2019 book that addresses struggles--including those which arise from systemic barriers--experienced by economically disadvantaged students at elite colleges, author Anthony Abraham Jack shares data gathered by economist Raj Chetty who found that students from the top 1 percent (with incomes of at least $630,000 a year) are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than are students from families earning $30,000 or less. Thirty-eight elite colleges have more students from that top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent--a “growing group of families that make less than $65,000,” according to Jack.


Students from wealthy families take up two-thirds of the seats at the best schools, says Jack.


At the University of Michigan, considered a “highly selective” public school, 66 percent of students come from families in the top 20 percent with a median income is $154,000. This income number is at the top of the list of 27 highly selective public schools in the country, according to New York Times data “The Upshot.”


Researchers have a term to describe the practice of high-achieving students applying to and attending lower-tier universities and community colleges, when they can succeed at more selective schools.


They call it “undermatching,” and about half of all talented low-income students undermatch, according to a 2012 study by Caroline Hoxby at Stanford University and Christopher Avery at Harvard University. Students who undermatch have lower rates of on-time graduation than their peers at selective schools, according to a newer study on the topic.


While students from any background can undermatch, black students are more likely than white, Latinx, or Asian students to set their sights on lower-tier colleges. Experts theorize that one reason for undermatching is the perception that selective colleges are financially out of reach. But that may not be true,


Finding the students, then asking them to apply


To counter this, researchers at the University of Michigan set out to find high-achieving Michigan students from disadvantaged financial backgrounds and be a cheerleader, much like Dignan’s grandfather was. And the financial message they shared was no less important than the stated belief that U-M was an appropriate college for their academic abilities.


“We wanted to see what share of low-income students had high SAT scores and high GPAs and where they went to college. The data was clear. Among students with the same scores, the low-income students were less likely to go to selective universities,” says Susan Dynarski, University of Michigan professor of public policy, education and economics and investigator in the study detailed in the white paper “Closing the Gap: the effect of a targeted, tuition-free promise on college choices of high-achieving, low-income students,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in December 2018.


Research shows that students are more likely to respond to simple and direct messages about college costs, so the study devised an intervention in the form of direct communication targeted at high-achieving students from low-income families, their parents, and school principals.


The glossy, high-profile package that offered a promise of a full-tuition scholarship with no requirement to complete financial aid forms was sent to students with high GPAs and test scores from families eligible to participate in the federally subsidized lunch program. According to the white paper, this was $44,863 for a family of four in 2015. About 2,000 students in 500 schools in Michigan met the income and academic criteria. Forty percent of the schools were in southeast Michigan, 46 percent in the west-central region, and 14 percent in the Upper Peninsula. Schools were in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.


The average student had a 3.8 GPA and scored 1257 on the SAT.


“We told them in no uncertain terms that tuition would be waived, and here is a guarantee,” says Dynarski. “You get in, and we will pay for it. Not ‘you won’t likely have to pay,’ but a specific promise to an individual for four years.” This upfront promise differs widely from the typical application plus lengthy and complicated FAFSA completion, with weeks or months of uncertainty about how much the education will actually cost.


The results? Students who received the high-profile, glossy package were more than twice as likely to apply--at 67 percent versus 26 percent--and enroll at the University of Michigan.


“The effects were far larger than we expected. Enormous,” says Dynarski. One-quarter of the students who enrolled would not have attended college at all, and the rest would have attended community college or a less-selective university.


The study did not “poach” students away from other elite schools, says Dynarski.


“We got more students to go to selective institutions, and we are now four years into the study...and we are seeing that by going to a school with more resources, they are staying at higher rates.”


Dynarski says that because U-M enjoys graduation rates three times the number at less-selective schools, the students in the study have the potential to experience a big increase in social mobility. “If we add 150 students a year at U-M, that’s a lot of lives,” she says.


The research directly influenced the design of the Go Blue Guarantee, a policy that effectively waives tuition and mandatory fees beyond what is covered by additional grants and scholarships for students from families with incomes at or below $65,000 a year, according to a news release.


More work needed to reverse the trend


Overall, colleges are paying closer attention to efforts to attract students who wouldn’t normally apply because of perceived financial barriers, says Holly Markiecki-Bennetts, school counselor at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills and current president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling. One approach is a quick acceptance letter with full financial aid information included, as well as more effective communication directly with students from the college.


“College counselor outreach is important, especially if they are providing information about what financial aid could look like, especially from more selective schools,” says Markiecki-Bennetts. “Conversations like ‘if your family makes this much, you will pay nothing’ are critical. Without that conversation, students remove themselves from even applying.”


For students whose families are fighting for every meal, says Markiecki-Bennetts, college tuition could be more than a family makes in a year, and students may undermatch because removing themselves as potential earners in the family may cause feelings of guilt.


“This could be a reality or a perception,” she says. “If their job is to help support the family after high school, there is a context for that. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”


Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Fascination drives Claire Charlton to write features and profiles. Always interested in people and their stories, Claire is dedicated to the art of interviewing. A freelancer for a dozen years, Claire writes about health, fitness, business and fun. When she’s not writing, drinking coffee or hanging with her family, Claire runs endurance events, practices yoga, and volunteers with lots of nonprofits.
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