One easy way to increase diversity on college campuses

December 13, 2018

America’s inequality problem is bigger than Harvard, the University of Michigan or the SAT. But there are steps universities can take to ease the application process for low-income students. A new study suggests that low-income high school students are more likely to apply to selective colleges if they’re aware that they can receive financial aid. A mailer is an easy way to inform.

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.