Paper Summary: Closing the Gap: The Effect of a Targeted, Tuition-Free Promise on College Choices of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

I recently started binge-watching Games of Thrones (yes I am late, but I did read the books, so back off (also I have not finished yet so no spoilers please)) and tried to find a connection between the show and economics for this blog but after watching approximately 50 hours of TV over the course of one week my brain was mush. Maybe I'll return to this idea at a later point.

Instead, I have decided to summarize an economic research paper by some amazing economists.
Susan Dynarski, C.J. Libassi, Katherine Michelmore, and Stephanie Owen authored the paper "Closing the Gap: The Effect of a Targeted, Tuition-Free Promise on College Choices of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students". You can find an abstract of the paper here.

In their paper, they discuss an initiative that attempted to increase the attendance of high performing, but low-income students to a highly selective university. In the U.S., low-income students with similar qualifications as their peers are less likely to attend college, an observation that is even more pronounced at highly selective universities. Given that selectiveness at universities (as well as attending university in the first place) can have a significant impact on future income and career prospects, it's important that high performing students get a chance at this regardless of their family's income. Apart from these individual benefits of attending a highly selective university, society can also benefit from more diverse voices in all kinds of professions. Low-income students are likely to have faced different hurdles in life and offer a different perspective on a variety of issues.

While universities don't actively discriminate against low-income students, other barriers might discourage these students from applying in the first place. The barriers discussed in the paper are uncertainty about their chances to get into a highly selective university, overestimation of the net costs of attending university, and highly bureaucratic procedures when applying for financial aid. To overcome these issues the students need to be reassured they are qualified to attend the university, informed about the costs, and the bureaucratic burden of financial aid needs to be reduced. The paper introduces the scholarship program "HAIL (High Achieving Involved Leader)". Basically, students fitting the profile were contacted by the University of Michigan (the state's most selective college) via mail and (1) encouraged to apply, (2) promised four years of free tuition if they are admitted, and (3) all of this without having to fill out any financial aid forms. Additionally, parents and school principals were contacted to provide further support. This, alongside (1) intends to assure the students that they have good chances of being admitted and encourages them to at least try. (2) reduces the financial burden on low-income families and (3) removes the bureaucratic nightmare of applying for financial aid. Crucially, these students would be entitled to this level of financial aid if they had applied before HAIL came into effect, the program simply takes a more proactive and less bureaucratic way of informing students about the support available to them. At the same time, all of this comes at little cost to the university.

Overall, the program has proven to be very successful in reducing this gap, see here for a breakdown of the exact effects and numbers.


Why is this study important? Well, as mentioned above, there are individual as well as societal benefits to encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to apply to highly selective universities. Hypothesizing about the reasons that keep these students from applying and designing a study to target these barriers allows admission teams at universities to identify effective ways to improve the current income gap in their students' backgrounds. This study gives universities a good starting point to design such programs.

Lastly, I wonder if the informational side of this campaign could be used to address other diversity-related issues. Economics has a problem of attracting women and students from minority backgrounds to its profession, for example, women account for only 28% percent of economics staff at U.K. universities.  Perhaps, having universities contact students that took economics classes in high school (or in the U.K., at A Levels) and informing them about the economics course at the university alongside explaining the application process could help improve these numbers.

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