Report: HAIL scholarship program boosts students’ trajectory


A University of Michigan scholarship program launched five years ago for high achieving, low-income students in Michigan has boosted applications and enrollment while helping to diversify the student body, a new study finds.

Research for years has shown that low-income students face unique barriers to applying to colleges, let alone being able to afford tuition and living costs. To address these concerns, university leadership worked with Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy faculty members Susan Dynarski and Katherine Michelmore in 2015 to design and launch the HAIL scholarship program.

HAIL, which stands for High Achieving Involved Leader, provides low-income students with an early, four-year guarantee of free tuition and fees, without requiring them to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The first cohort of 262 students arrived on campus for the 2016 fall term.

Now, as the HAIL program reaches five years of activity with the spring 2021 commencement, a report released by the Education Policy Initiative at the Ford School describes how targeted outreach about the HAIL scholarship program has affected the behavior of those students.

“The HAIL intervention meaningfully changed students’ college decisions, inducing these students to apply and enroll at U-M at substantially higher rates,” the report concludes. “Specifically, HAIL students were more than twice as likely to apply to, gain admission and enroll at the University of Michigan than students who did not receive the HAIL scholarship offer.”

The study, titled “Increasing economic diversity at a flagship university: Understanding the effect of the HAIL scholarship on student decision making,” examined the behaviors of about 4,000 high-achieving, low-income high school juniors across the state. Some had received targeted information about the HAIL scholarship (HAIL students) and some had not (the control group).

Researchers randomly sent targeted information to some students to observe the causal effect the information had on students’ college choices. The study has been following those students for the past five years, and will continue to track the application, acceptance, persistence and completion rates for each year’s cohort.

Specifically, the study found:

  • HAIL students were more than twice as likely to apply to U-M than students in the control group. Specifically, 68 percent of HAIL students applied, compared with 26 percent of students in the control group.
  • Of HAIL students, 32 percent applied and were admitted. Of control students, 15 percent applied and were admitted. In other words, HAIL increased the likelihood of applying and being admitted by 17 percentage points. 
  • Twenty-seven percent of HAIL students enrolled at U-M, compared with 12 percent of students in the control group, a treatment effect of 15 percentage points, which translates roughly to 150 more high-achieving, low-income students enrolled each year.

HAIL’s design made progress toward the university’s goal of economically diversifying its student body.

“Cost should never be a barrier to in-state students seeking to study at the University of Michigan,” President Mark Schlissel said. “This research has given us important data that has helped us design programs that provide greater access to the life-changing educational opportunities at a top public research university. I am proud that so many students from all areas of our state have benefited.”

The study suggests the findings can be relevant to policymakers across the country working to make secondary education more attainable for low-income students.

Among the recommendations:

  • Design the outreach with the institution’s specific goals in mind.
  • Leverage available data to define the target population. 
  • Reduce other barriers, like complex disclosure forms, so that the financial aid process is clear and accessible.

Thanks to a partnership with U-M’s Office of Enrollment Management, the research team was able to track whether students applied and were accepted to U-M, and test tweaks to the intervention over time.

“When we designed the HAIL scholarship, we knew there were students who had the ability to attend a college like the University of Michigan, but believed they couldn’t afford it,” said Interim Vice Provost Paul Robinson. “Our partnership with the research team revealed just how many of these students live right here in Michigan … and allowed us to test the effectiveness of this truly innovative program.”

The study was led by Dynarski, University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor, and professor of public policy, of education, and of Economics; and Michelmore, associate professor of public policy. It included researchers Stephanie Owen, C.J. Libassi, Elizabeth Burland and Shwetha Raghuraman. The report was written by Alex Baum, Darian Burns, Jasmina Camo-Biogradlij and Nicole Wagner Lam.


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