Michelmore and research team find unconditional, pre-admission free tuition policies are most effective 

April 1, 2022

After launching a study about attracting low-income students to the University of Michigan in 2015, Professor Katherine Michelmore, Harvard Professor Susan Dynarski, and Colby College Assistant Professor Stephanie Owen, both of whom were at U-M at the time, dove deeper into the HAIL Scholarship to discern what part of the program attracted students most. 

In the paper, “The Power of Certainty: Experimental Evidence on the Effective Design of Free Tuition Programs,” which was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, the professors, along with predoctoral fellows Elizabeth Burland and Shwetha Raghuraman, investigate what type of “free college” proposals are most effective.

The previous study, “Increasing Economic Diversity at a Flagship University,” focused on the HAIL Scholarship, which provides high-achieving, low-income students with an unconditional offer of four years of free tuition before they apply to U-M. The study found that HAIL students were more than twice as likely to apply, be admitted to, and enroll at U-M than the control group. 

“While the treatment effects were conclusively large, it remained unclear which dimensions of the treatment were most effective,” the researchers write in a new working paper. “This ambiguity is consequential for policy.”

The study randomly assigns high-achieving, low-income high school seniors to receive one of two offers: a pre-admission unconditional offer of four years of free tuition called the HAIL Scholarship, or a pre-admission free tuition offer contingent upon students demonstrating need each year called the Go Blue Guarantee. A third group of students received no offer and were considered the control condition.

Using data from the Michigan Department of Education to identify eligible students, the study found that while both groups apply to U-M at higher rates, the certainty of the HAIL Scholarship was much more successful in increasing application, admission and enrollment rates. 

“The financial certainty of the unconditional, four-year commitment appears particularly valuable,” the authors write. “Among low-income students offered the unconditional, four-year commitment, the rate of application to the University of Michigan was 63 percent, compared to 44 percent in the arm with the conditional, one-year offer, and 35 percent in the control group.”

The researchers also looked into explanations for  why the HAIL Scholarship was so successful compared to the Go Blue Guarantee offer. They examined whether HAIL students were reluctant to fill out aid forms, compared aid offers, and examined the effect of the rollout of the statewide Go Blue Guarantee. But, none of these explanations were as strong as the financial certainty of the HAIL Scholarship. 

“Our findings suggest that a straightforward, zero-tuition program like HAIL would substantially expand enrollments among low-income students,” they conclude. “However, we expect little effect of policies that, like the Go Blue Guarantee, rely on traditional, need-based aid programs and do not resolve uncertainty about aid until after application.”

Read the entirety of the new working paper, the original HAIL study, and an article discussing the paper: