By Adam Rubenfire, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 13, 2011
Though the University boasts one of the 50 largest endowments in the country, a recent report faults the University and other wealthy schools for failing to adequately attract and serve students with financial need in recent years.
The report, released by The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 27, reveals that the University, along with several other colleges and universities across the country with large endowments, has not increased its Pell Grant-eligible student population since 2004. However, University records show the number of Pell Grants awarded to University students in recent years has increased as a percentage of the student body. Despite the discrepancy, University officials say more work must be done to attract academically qualified low-income students.
Pell Grants are federal grants that subsidize college tuition for students with annual family incomes less than $40,000. Grants are awarded based on a formula that considers the cost of attending the institution and the student’s expected financial contribution, enrollment status and the length of the academic year.
According to The Chronicle’s report, the University awarded 3,416 Pell Grants to students for the 2008-2009 academic year — a 0.2-percent decrease from the number of grants the University awarded for the 2004-2005 academic year. During the interim academic years, the number of Pell Grants awarded was largely stagnant.
The report notes that all 50 universities with the highest endowments — the University’s endowment was $6.6 billion at the end of the 2010 fiscal year — have a relatively small student population of Pell Grant students compared to many schools with smaller endowments. It found that, on average, 15 percent of undergraduates at the 50 evaluated institutions received Pell Grants during the 2008-2009 academic year.
In the same year, the report showed the University’s Pell Grant population — 12.8 percent of its student body — to be below the average of even the 50 colleges and universities with the largest endowments, which on average have 80 percent fewer students of Pell Grant-eligible students than the average of all colleges and universities in the country.
However, Margaret Rodriguez, the University’s senior associate director of financial aid, wrote in an e-mail interview that the University’s internal statistics differ from those in The Chronicle report. While The Chronicle reported a small decrease in Pell Grants awarded by the University from 2004 to 2008, the University’s records show an 18.7-percent increase in Pell Grants from 2008 to 2009.
For the 2008-2009 academic year, University students received a collective $11 million in Pell Grants.
Despite the University’s figures that show growth in the number of University students receiving Pell Grants, Rodriguez wrote the University must do more to increase its Pell Grant student population.
"We are not where we would like to be yet, but we're focusing on doing even better going forward,” Rodriguez wrote.
Because students’ family income isn’t considered in the admissions process, the University accepts academically qualified low-income students at the same rate as students without demonstrated financial need. However, low-income students do not apply for admission at the same rate, Rodriguez wrote.
"It is important to note that income is not a factor in the admissions process, which is need-blind,” Rodriguez wrote. “Ultimately, we admit lower-income students at the same rates as upper-income students.”
Rodriguez explained that many low-income families may assume the University is too expensive for their level of income, though the University is committed to meeting 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of in-state students. She wrote that her office and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions are working to educate low-income families about the options they have to afford University tuition.
"Direct recruitment of prospective lower-income students is key,” Rodriguez wrote. “To this end, staff from the University's Offices of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid begin active outreach to prospective Pell-eligible students at the middle school level and continue through high school.”
In an interview last week, University Provost Philip Hanlon said a study conducted by his office found that low-income and high-income students sent ACT scores to the University at similar rates. Additionally, the percentages of low-income students and high-income students who were admitted to the University and the percentage that enrolled were the same. The only difference between low-income and high-income students during the admissions process, Hanlon said, was the number of applicants from each group.
“That was a really helpful finding,” Hanlon said. “What it said is that as we try to create socioeconomic diversity, the place we need to focus on is the application stage — getting a richer applicant pool.”
A second study conducted by Hanlon’s office sought to find why students from low-income families weren’t applying to the University at the same rate as students from more affluent families. His office surveyed students who sent in their ACT scores, but had not applied. Hanlon said the survey found that low-income students didn’t believe financial aid was available to them and were concerned they would have to pay full tuition.
“That further helps us understand what our issue is,” Hanlon said. “We have a communications issue. We aren’t getting out the word to students — particularly lower-income students — about what kind of financial aid resources are available to them.”
To help solve this problem, Hanlon said the University created a marketing office within the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
“We don’t have a goal in mind or articulated, but we’re definitely tracking how we’re doing and trying to craft our communications strategy, our marketing strategy and our financial aid strategy to try to improve the socioeconomic diversity of our student body,” Hanlon said.
Hanlon added that though Pell Grant numbers at Michigan colleges and universities have not significantly increased in the past few years, the University’s statistics are similar to its peer institutions in the state.
In an interview last week, University President Mary Sue Coleman acknowledged the importance of the University making prospective students aware of financial aid options.
"We need to do a much better job of educating people across the income spectrum about the fact that, if you get into Michigan, if you're qualified academically to get in, we will make it possible for you to come to Michigan through a combination of grants and work-study and loans,” Coleman said.
She added that the difficulty of attracting low-income students is something many Universities face.
"I think one of the challenges across the board for higher education is convincing low-income families that it is possible to come to college, even if you don't think you have the wear-with-all,” Coleman said.
—Phoebe Barghouty, Daily News Editor Joseph Lichterman and Managing Editor Kyle Swanson contributed to this report.