If you’re a Harvard student, you’re probably well-off. The Harvard Crimson reported in 2017 that the median family income for a Harvard University student is $168,800 — a figure three times the national average. Harvard’s rarefied atmosphere isn’t breaking news, nor does it appear to be specific to Harvard. Though elite schools like Harvard have recently stepped up efforts to reach out to low-income high-school students, and to support them on campus after they matriculate, these students are still a rarity at the nation’s most selective institutions. Previous research reported by NPR found that low-income, high-achieving students only constitute about 3 percent of admissions to elite colleges nationwide, for myriad reasons. Students often don’t know, for example, that colleges will waive application fees for low-income applicants.
Now, new research reinforces the systemic nature of the barriers low-income students encounter when they consider higher education. A study, released this month by the University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski and Stephanie Owen, along with Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University and C.J. Libassi of the College Board, suggests that low-income students are more likely to apply to selective colleges if they’re aware that they can receive financial aid.
In a randomized, controlled trial, researchers targeted high-school seniors in the state of Michigan who qualified for free or reduced school meals and met the academic criteria for admission to the University of Michigan. “In a personalized mailing, students were encouraged to apply to the University of Michigan (the state’s most selective college) and promised four years of free tuition and fees if admitted, with no requirement to complete financial aid forms. Parents and principals of the eligible students were also personally notified about this offer,” researchers explained. Researchers didn’t create a financial-aid program for the study, of course; they simply informed eligible students about financial aid already available to them. And the results were significant.
“The likelihood of application to the University of Michigan more than doubled, from 26 percent among controls to 67 percent among students offered treatment. The share enrolling at any highly selective college more than doubled, from 13 percent to 28 percent, with this effect operating completely through enrollment at University of Michigan,” researchers wrote. “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 balance would have attended a community college or a less selective four-year college in the absence of the treatment.” Low-income students always had the choice to apply to the University of Michigan, but it’s clear that barriers prevented them from doing so. Information about financial aid seems to be key.
The results of this study probably won’t surprise anyone who didn’t grow up comfortably middle-class in America. Instead, they merely quantify what many of us already understand to be true. If you don’t know that schools like Michigan or Harvard tend to offer generous financial-aid packages to students who qualify, you probably won’t bother to apply. I certainly didn’t, even though my father had worked for years as an adjunct professor of music. Adjunct work isn’t exactly lucrative, and college affordability as my dad defined it consisted of playing auditions for scholarship money, which didn’t apply to me. We had no money for campus visits, let alone for tuition — a situation that barely improved even after my dad got a full-time job during my my senior year of high school.
Instead, I chose my college based on its religious commitments and the knowledge that I qualified to compete for a tuition waiver. Lest this anecdote reek of self-pity, I freely admit that my own beliefs factored into my college decision and that algebra was not exactly a personal strength. If I’d applied to Harvard or Michigan, perhaps both schools would have rejected me. But it’s true, still, that I ended up at a university whose science faculty taught us that God created the world in seven days largely because I believed I couldn’t afford anything else.
I’ve heard variations of that same story from others — from hometown friends to fellow journalists from lower-income backgrounds. Some stumbled on the information they needed and others did not. When choice is a luxury, it resembles chance. The study’s authors seem to realize this, since their intervention didn’t just target students or even parents, but school principals, too. A student’s ability to access an elite education may hinge on the adults in the room. For first-generation students, parents might not be a realistic source of inside information on college financial aid. (For me, neither were parents with college degrees.) But if the highest administrator in your high school doesn’t already know that there’s money available for you, what choice do you really have? Never mind that low-income students must already overcome systemic barriers to even qualify for admission to a school like Michigan. If you aren’t truant because your family needs you to work, if you aren’t expelled by a school system that disproportionately penalizes black students, if your school actually offers Advanced Placement courses and enrichment activities, if you manage to make up for a lifetime of institutionalized disadvantages by scoring well on the SAT, then and only then can you look back on your time in high school and wonder if you could have gone to Harvard after all.
America’s inequality problem is bigger than Harvard, bigger than the University of Michigan, bigger than the SAT. But there are steps universities can take to ease the application process for low-income students. Nothing really prevents schools from sending out mailings of the kind designed by Dynarski, et al. It’s hard to imagine that doing so would be prohibitively more expensive than running a football team, or paying a university president the better part of a million dollars — $4.4 million, in the case of Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch. It’s just a question of priorities.