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

Susan Dynarski, C.J. Libassi, Katherine Michelmore, Stephanie Owen

NBER Working Paper No. 25349
Issued in December 2018
NBER Program(s):Program on Children, Economics of Education Program, Labor Studies Program, Public Economics Program

Low-income students, even those with strong academic credentials, are unlikely to attend a highly selective college. With a field experiment, we test an intervention to increase enrollment of low-income students at the highly selective University of Michigan. We contact students (as well as their parents and principals) with an encouragement to apply and a promise of four years of free tuition and fees upon admission. Materials emphasize that this offer is not contingent on completing aid applications (e.g., the FAFSA or PROFILE). Treated students were more than twice as likely to apply to (67 percent vs. 26 percent) and enroll at (27 percent vs. 12 percent) the University of Michigan. There was no diversion from schools as (or more) selective as UM. The enrollment effect of 15 percentage points (pp) comprises students who would otherwise attend a less selective, four-year college (7 pp), a community college (4 pp), or no college (4 pp). Effects persist through two years of follow-up. The intervention closed by half the income gaps in college choice among Michigan's high-achieving students. We conclude that an encouragement to apply, paired with a promise of aid, when communicated to students and influential adults, can substantially close income gaps in college choices.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25349

 
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