Informing Low-Income Students of Free Tuition Eligibility Can Boost Enrollment at Selective Schools

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Making high-performing, low-income high school students aware that they are eligible for four years of free tuition at selective universities through targeted mailings can more than double their application and enrollment rates, according to a new National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper.

The authors—Susan Dynarski and Stephanie Owen of the University of Michigan, C.J. Libassi of College Board, and Katherine Michelmore of Syracuse University—argued that low-income students with strong grades and standardized test scores are unlikely to apply to and attend more selective colleges due to concerns of affordability, procedural barriers such as filing a FAFSA, and “uncertainty about their suitability for an elite school,” even though doing so could “increase their chances of completing a college degree and increase their future wages.”

The authors conducted an experiment with students at the University of Michigan (UM)—an intervention they dubbed the “High Achieving Involved Leader Scholarship” or “HAIL Scholarship”—in which they ran an “inexpensive, targeted, personalized outreach campaign” to make a group of students aware that they would be eligible for four years of free tuition and fees if admitted, with no requirement to file a FAFSA. The authors noted that the selected students would have qualified for free tuition and fees at UM despite the scholarship, (as 90 percent of students receiving aid packages at UM were granted full-tuition scholarships,) and that this intervention “therefore informed students about aid for which they were already eligible” yet “reduced uncertainty with its four-year, early commitment.”    

The authors found that such an initiative, which they began two years ago, “can alter the college decisions of low-income students.” Specifically, the students who were targeted in the experiment applied to UM and enrolled at a rate of 41 percentage points higher (from 26 percent to 67 percent) and 15 percentage points higher (from 12 percent to 27 percent), respectively, than those who were not targeted with mailings.

The mailings, which were sent to students based on their eligibility for aid as well as their GPAs and SAT test scores using state administrative data, consisted of a letter from the UM president encouraging students to apply—with the promise of free tuition and fees if the student was accepted—a flyer describing the application process, and coupons for free waivers for the FAFSA, the Common Application, and CSS profile. While the letter explained that students did not need to file the FAFSA to receive the HAIL Scholarship, it encouraged them to do so in order to receive more aid.

The letters were also mailed two weeks later to parents of selected students, as well as to their high school principals, which the authors wrote could inspire “already supportive adults to assist student in applying,” or “change the minds of adults doubtful that a student can get into (or afford) a selective school.”

The authors cautioned that while such an intervention was very successful at UM, this may not be the case for other universities. UM, for example, is not only the highest quality institution in the state, but it is also the least expensive for low-income students to attend as its aid package meets students’ full need, according to the authors. In other states, however, a flagship college may try to attract students with scholarships that will not meet students’ full need, pulling them from applying to schools that would better serve them financially.

“In short, the evidence indicates that the decisions of low-income, high-achieving students can be strongly influenced by an inexpensive outreach campaign. This is both good news and bad news. When well-targeted, a HAIL-like intervention could substantially improve postsecondary outcomes for low-income students. When poorly planned, or wielded by bad actors, it could do serious harm,” they wrote.

The authors wrote that they plan to track the HAIL Scholarship’s effects on college persistence and graduation, as well its long-term influence on earnings and “other measures of well-being.”


Publication Date: 12/11/2018

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