STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Caleb Adams is a sophomore at the University of Michigan. It's a university he did not expect he would ever be able to attend back when he was a high school student in the small town of Bark River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
CALEB ADAMS: I grew up a Michigan fan. I always loved Michigan, but I just never thought about actually going there because getting into Michigan was hard, and it was expensive.
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Caleb was a good student - near the top of his class, says he had about a 38 point average, captain of the football team, National Honor Society. And he held down a job.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. What was I doing in high school?
GARCIA: (Laughter) Things got serious. But the University of Michigan is an elite school. Less than 25 percent of the students who applied for last year's class were accepted.
VANEK SMITH: Caleb's mother is a bus driver, and his father is a cop. The family is of modest means. And the sticker price for tuition and fees to attend the University of Michigan for four years, even for Michigan residents, is at least $60,000. So Caleb always figured he would end up going to Northern Michigan University instead. It's easier to get into and has a lower sticker price.
ADAMS: Yeah. I did not think about it at all. I was pretty set on going to Northern because it was really close to home, and all my friends were going there.
VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia.
What Caleb did not know going into his senior year in high school was that an experiment run by an economist would end up changing the path of his life. And the conclusions of the experiment are promising enough that it could end up doing the same for a lot of high school students just like the one that Caleb used to be - students who would wrongly assume that going to an elite university just wasn't really an option.
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GARCIA: Sue Dynarski is a professor of economics, education and public policy at the University of Michigan. And she has been interested in the topic of inequality in educational outcomes ever since she got a scholarship to study at Harvard, where she realized how different she was from most of her classmates because she came from a low-income family. And now as an economist, one place where Sue observes a lot of inequality is within the student body of her own university.
SUE DYNARSKI: The statistics that we now know are that, at most of the top schools - the Harvards, the Stanfords and the Michigans - there are as many students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution as there are from the entire bottom 60 percent of the income distribution, right? So huge overrepresentation of rich students and underrepresentation of low-income students.
VANEK SMITH: And when there is inequality within the student bodies of elite colleges, that can lead to higher inequality after college as well for a couple of reasons. One is that attending a higher-quality college leads to higher incomes after graduation. That's not that surprising. And another reason is that students who attend elite colleges are a lot more likely to actually graduate. For example, take Northern Michigan University, where Caleb Adams thought he would end up going. Only about half the students who attend Northern Michigan University graduate within six years of starting. At the University of Michigan, it's about 90 percent.
GARCIA: A few years ago, the administrators at the University of Michigan wanted to increase the number of good students from low-income families that applied to the school. So they approached Sue Dynarski to help them out. Now, Sue and her three collaborators - Katherine Michelmore, C.J. Libassi and Stephanie Owen - were already familiar with the current research.
VANEK SMITH: And what that research shows is that low-income, high-achieving students in high school were often disincentivized from applying to an elite college by three main things. First, these students weren't sure if they were suitable to attend such an elite school. Like they might have worried that their grades weren't good enough or that their high school wasn't good enough. Second, the students overestimated how much it would cost to attend an elite university. Third - and I think this is especially relatable - they were intimidated or confused by the bureaucracy of filling out financial aid forms like FAFSA, which is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
DYNARSKI: The financial aid system in our country is set up such that you don't find out about the price of college until you've actually applied and been admitted, which is bassackwards (ph), right? So it's like we offered a, you know, a car - an auto rebate and we provided it after people signed the dotted line and agreed to buy the car. That's essentially what we do.
VANEK SMITH: Sue and her colleagues ran an experiment. And what they wanted to do was design this simple intervention that could eliminate or at least shrink all of the barriers that were preventing low-income students from applying to the University of Michigan.
ADAMS: They started by identifying about 2,000 high school seniors in the state of Michigan who met two criteria. First, these students had grades and SAT scores that were good enough that they would probably be accepted into the University of Michigan if they applied. And second, their families had incomes below a certain threshold. They were low-income families.
VANEK SMITH: The researchers then randomly split these students into two different groups. One was the control group. These students did not get the intervention from Sue and her colleagues.
GARCIA: The students in the second group, though, who attended a different set of high schools - these students were the treatment group. These students did get the intervention. And that intervention arrived in the shape of a big, glossy packet that the University of Michigan mailed to their homes. The package was decorated with maize and blue colors - the University of Michigan's colors. And inside was a letter that encouraged the student to apply.
DYNARSKI: So we decided to push out to people a commitment that they could get four years of free tuition and fees at University of Michigan, and they did not need to fill out the FAFSA or - the profile is another financial aid form that some schools - including, sadly, University of Michigan - require of applicants.
GARCIA: The students, parents and the students' high schools were also made aware of the offer, which was labeled the HAIL Scholarship, partly because the Michigan fight song says the word hail over and over again.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hail to the victors.
GARCIA: To be clear, there was no extra money that came with this scholarship. These students would have been eligible for the same financial aid anyways. So in that one way, the HAIL Scholarship kind of already existed. It just wasn't called the HAIL Scholarship, and it required that a high school student would navigate the application bureaucracy to find it. So the intervention from Sue and her colleagues just stripped away that bureaucracy.
VANEK SMITH: And now we can see how the package was designed to remove those three barriers that often prevented students from applying to elite schools. The package encouraged students to apply, which reduced their uncertainty about whether they were suitable for the school. Then the offer guaranteed that if they got accepted, all of their tuition and fees would be covered. So the student would know how much it would cost before applying. And the package informed the students that they would still have their tuition covered even if they didn't fill out all those cumbersome and intimidating financial aid forms. Caleb says there is no way he would have ended up at Michigan if he had not received this packet.
ADAMS: And Michigan was not on my radar at all until I got this packet. It said four years free tuition. And originally, we kind of had thought that it was like - I didn't - I'd never heard of the HAIL Scholarship or anything like that. And they're like - what's the catch to it is what I'd always thought. I'd actually taken it to my guidance counselor at my school, and I was like, hey, have you ever heard of this? And he goes, no, are you sure it's real?
GARCIA: So both you and your guidance counselor thought it might be a scam?
ADAMS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. We had never heard of it before. And we just kind of felt like, you know, if it's too good to be true, it probably is.
VANEK SMITH: But it was not too good to be true. It was actually real. So Caleb applied to the University of Michigan. He got in. And he's now a student whose tuition and fees are covered, and he wasn't the only one. Here's how Sue describes the outcome of the HAIL Scholarship experiment in the first year it was tried on the 2,000 high school seniors.
DYNARSKI: About 22 to 25 percent of the control group applied to University of Michigan, while in the treatment group, it was about 67 percent. So a huge increase in application rates.
VANEK SMITH: So the effects of this experiment were clearly pretty huge. And not only were students who received the glossy packet much more likely to apply to the University of Michigan, they were also much more likely to enroll. And the experiment led to an additional 150 low-income students enrolling at the University of Michigan in the first year it was tried.
GARCIA: Sue does caution that this is just one experiment at one school in one state. She really hopes that other scholars will conduct similar experiments in other places to better understand the findings. Still, it's a promising start, and for Caleb Adams, it's already much more than that.
ADAMS: I do think that that scholarship did change my life drastically from, I mean, I - so I still think I would have had a good life at Northern and I probably would have been a high school teacher and now I don't I don't know what I'm going to do to be honest. There's just so many opportunities and like chances out once.
VANEK SMITH: Caleb should start a podcast.
GARCIA: Yeah. I remember what it was like to be young.
VANEK SMITH: Do it, Caleb. I know.
GARCIA: And the future seems so wide open.
VANEK SMITH: And all these doors. That's awesome.
GARCIA: Too late for us. Podcast host or bust for us, I think.
VANEK SMITH: Or ashram.
GARCIA: THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR. Constanza Gallardo produced this episode, and it was edited by Paddy Hirsch.
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