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  • June 7, 2021

Applying themselves

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Many selective colleges are eager to enroll high-achieving high school students from low-income backgrounds. A big challenge, however, is getting those students to apply.

In a paper in the American Economic Review, authors Susan Dynarski, C.J. Libassi, Katherine Michelmore, and Stephanie Owen use a randomized control trial to determine whether simply reframing offers of financial aid—without increasing the amount of support—would make a difference in application and enrollment decisions among high-achieving poor students.

In the fall of 2016, they sent personalized mailings to high school seniors in Michigan encouraging them to apply to the state’s flagship school, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The letter, which was sent to around 1,000 students, pledged four years of free tuition and fees to those admitted. The offer did not increase aid; it simply guaranteed before application the same grant aid students would qualify for if admitted.

The authors found substantial effects on applications and enrollment.

 

 

 

Figure 4 from Dynarski et al. (2021)

 

The figure above shows the main results from their study. The lightly shaded columns in each panel are the control group, which did not receive the offer letters, and the dark shaded column is the treatment group. (The black bars at the top of each column represent 95 percent confidence intervals.) At control schools, 26 percent of low-income, high-achieving students applied to the University of Michigan, compared to 68 percent at treatment schools (panel A). The large gap in application rate also carried over into admissions and enrollment. The rate of admission from the control schools was 15 percent and in treated schools was 32 percent. Finally, the enrollment rate for students in the control schools was 12 percent while in the treatment schools it was 27 percent. 

The findings offer important insights for how to close gaps in educational attainment between low- and high-income students without spending more on financial aid. 

“Closing the Gap: The Effect of Reducing Complexity and Uncertainty in College Pricing on the Choices of Low-income Students” appears in the June 2021 issue of the American Economic Review.