This low-cost intervention doubled low-income student application rates

Low-income students face a range of college access barriers

Low-income students face a range of barriers to accessing college, and research has found that talented students from low-income households still don't apply to selective colleges at the rates they should.

Qualified underrepresented students may not enroll in college because they doubt their ability to afford college, to be admitted, to succeed academically once enrolled, or to fit in on campus, writes senior analyst Gelsey Mehl for EAB's Enrollment Management Forum.

Even when these students attempt to apply and enroll, they may encounter procedural barriers (like the FAFSA) and receive insufficient support to navigate the complex admission and enrollment process, she adds.

However, a new study  has found a low-cost way to recruit and enroll more underrepresented students. The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, examined the effects of a targeted-outreach campaign for low-income students at the University of Michigan (U-M).

The campaign, called the High Achieving Involved Leader (HAIL) scholarship, encourages highly qualified, low-income students to apply to the university and promises them free tuition for four years, with no requirement to fill out the FAFSA. The university also sent the scholarship information to two top influencers on school choice—parents and high school principals.

Each letter, which costs less than $10 to produce and mail, was enclosed in an envelope emblazoned with the university's blue-and-yellow colors, writes Chris Quintana for Chronicle of Higher Education. And the words "free tuition" conspicuously appeared several times throughout the letter.

Overall, HAIL packet recipients were more than twice as likely to apply than non-recipients (67% vs. 26%) and enroll (27% vs. 12%). "Our results show a low-cost intervention can profoundly alter student application to and enrollment at highly selective colleges," write the U-M researchers.

The researchers also found that some of the students enrolling at U-M wouldn't have gone to college at all if they had not received a letter. "One-quarter of the enrollment effect (four percentage points) is driven by students who would not have attended any college in the absence of the treatment," the report reads. "The balance would have attended a community college or a less selective four-year college in the absence of the treatment."

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U-M's HAIL campaign may have been particularly successful because it addressed underrepresented students' financial concerns and self-doubt early in the application process, according to an EAB white paper. For example, the letter emphasized the student's academic ability, not their need. The campaign also addressed parents' concerns by highlighting U-M's affordability and proximity to home.

And the HAIL campaign didn't just notify students of the scholarship opportunity, it also connected them to application support. Students' letters directed them to a personalized website that listed the contact information for an admissions and financial aid counselor.

U-M's targeted-outreach strategy may counteract the phenomenon of undermatching, in which students attend a less-selective college than their grades and test scores suggest they could have, writes Adam Harris for The Atlantic.

Students who undermatch are significantly less likely to graduate than their peers who don't undermatch. And students who don't graduate because they undermatched can face lower pay, poorer job prospects, and difficulty paying off student loans.

For the U-M researchers, the next step in evaluating the HAIL program is to track its effects on students' choice of major, graduation rates, and lifetime earnings, notes Harris.

But the university is "pleased with the first-year enrollment numbers from this initiative," Kedra Ishop, the university's vice president of enrollment management, told EAB. "The data indicates that if we remove barriers and provide high-achieving, low-income students with information and resources, they will apply and be accepted to selective colleges and universities" (Quintana, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/10; Harris, The Atlantic, 12/11).


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