In Trump country, a university confronts its skeptics
The University of Michigan, like many public flagship universities, faces a crisis of confidence in working-class communities.
By BENJAMIN WERMUND 11/09/2017 Politico
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The University of Michigan’s most legendary president coined what’s become an unofficial mission statement for one of the nation’s first public universities: to provide “an uncommon education for the common man.”
Michigan, he declared, would be an antidote to aristocracy.
“Have an aristocracy of birth if you will or of riches if you wish, but give our plain boys from the log cabins a chance to develop their minds with the best learning and we fear nothing from your aristocracy,” that president, James Angell, said in 1879. “In the fierce competitions of life something besides blue blood or inherited wealth is needed to compete with the brains and character from the cabins.”
Angell’s words are still a part of life at the Ann Arbor campus these days, but the spirit is missing: Today’s University of Michigan includes more than its share of blue bloods and people with inherited wealth. Like many other flagship state universities that were founded to provide a leg up for the common man, Michigan has become a school largely for students with means. A full 10 percent of its student body comes from families in the top 1 percent of earners, according to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project. Just 16 percent come from families in the bottom 60 percent of earners combined. The median income of parents of students at the university is $156,000, roughly three times the median income of Michigan families.
Tuition, which has shot up to compensate for steep state budget cuts, is a major culprit. So, too, is an elite reputation that serves to drive away potential applicants in the state that sealed Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election: There’s a sense that working-class students don’t belong there.
“It’s ingrained at an early age — ‘You’re not going to go there,’” explained Benjamin Edmondson, the superintendent of one school district in nearby Ypsilanti, Michigan, where almost every student is poor enough to qualify for a subsidized lunch. “Why? It’s expensive. Why? It’s not attainable.”
Indeed, many flagship state universities like Michigan have, despite their public missions, come to operate more like elite private universities, closer in spirit to the Ivy League than the desire for equal opportunity that helped create them. It’s a trend that’s brought increased selectivity but also a crisis of affordability and deep alienation from lower-income communities in the states they’re supposed to serve. The University of Michigan, like some others, appears to have been slow to respond to the dangers of encroaching elitism, but officials have taken steps in recent years to turn it around — most notably announcing that, starting next year, the university will offer free tuition to Michigan families making less than $65,000 per year.
The efforts have shown some promise, but they’ve also encountered surprising resistance.
That resistance is visible in Ypsilanti, the working-class city just seven miles from the university’s campus in Ann Arbor, one of America’s iconic college towns, with coffeehouses, boutiques and upscale eateries. Ypsilanti — once an automotive powerhouse, home to a storied auto plant that made bomber parts during World War II — is a place where students would, in theory, benefit greatly from the opportunities that open up to Michigan graduates.
But Edmondson can recall just one Ypsilanti student who has gone to Michigan out of more than 400 graduates of his district over the past two years, a fact that frustrates people in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti alike.
The sting is especially great because Michigan has earned a reputation as a champion of diversity. For a time, the university aggressively — and successfully — promoted racial diversity. In the 1990s, the university nearly doubled its percentage of black students and more than quadrupled its share of Hispanic students. The policies sparked legal challenges and yielded two Supreme Court decisions.
But economic inequality never got the same fervid advocacy. As James Duderstadt, the former president who led the university during the era of affirmative action in the 1990s, put it, the university actually adopted policies that worked against economic diversity. University leaders compensated for declining state funding by aggressively recruiting out-of-state students who could pay a higher price — “more characteristic of the ‘top 1%’ than the ‘common man,’” Duderstadt wrote in his book “A 50 Year History of Social Diversity at the University of Michigan.”
It’s a fact that frustrates those who believe public universities should help spur social mobility.
“If you’re a poor person in Michigan and you don’t hate the University of Michigan, you deserve to,” said Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies diversity issues in higher education. “That has to be a completely obnoxious institution.”
But if that’s true, Michigan isn’t the only one. The University of Virginia, which was such a source of pride to Thomas Jefferson that he insisted its founding be etched on his gravestone, caters to an almost identical demographic, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project data. More than 8 percent of University of Virginia students are from the top 1 percent and just 15 percent of the student body is from the bottom 60 percent of earners. At the leafy University of Vermont, the figures are 7 percent and 21 percent. At the University of Alabama, it’s 6 percent and 21 percent.
A recent analysis of the Equality of Opportunity Project data — which used tax data to study campus economic trends from 2000 to 2011, the most recent years available — by the D.C.-based think tank New America found that since the late 1990s, nearly two-thirds of selective public universities increased the share of students in the top 20 percent and reduced the share from the bottom 40 percent.
Another recent report, by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, found that at 24 public flagship universities, out-of-state students represent at least 40 percent of freshman enrollment. At 11 public flagships, out-of-state students account for more than half of all freshmen. Out-of-state enrollment at prestigious public flagship research universities like the University of Michigan grew by 80 students per year, on average, from 2013 to 2015.
“We are shutting the doors of higher education — of public higher education — to low-income students,” said Stephen Burd, who led the New America analysis. “That’s incredibly distressing considering public higher education is supposed to be the cheaper option that common people — real people — could go to. Now you see these public colleges are acting just like the private colleges. It’s kind of scary in terms of what this means for opportunity in this country.”
Americans, meanwhile, are increasingly losing faith in higher education. Republicans see universities as out of touch, pushing a liberal agenda on their students. Democrats see them as too expensive. Increasingly, the working class sees higher education as not worth the cost — despite the fact that a growing share of jobs require a postsecondary degree.
President Donald Trump played to that sentiment on the campaign trail, railing against elitist universities that he declared “a place of extreme censorship,” while calling the rising cost of college “very unfair.” His administration has questioned the value of four-year degrees, saying elite universities aren’t for everyone and more students should attend community colleges or technical schools.
That message likely resonates in Michigan, which Trump won unexpectedly.
“After the election … I looked at the state and how red it was,” said Sarah Anthony, deputy director of a group called the Michigan College Access Network, which seeks to boost college readiness, participation, and completion — particularly among low-income students and first-generation college students. “The [areas] that did go for Trump — there’s a low educational attainment rate.”
Those were the areas, Anthony said, where “we’re having the toughest time building college-going culture.” In some areas of the state, the group has presented parents with facts about how much more people earn with a college degree or how many jobs require a higher education “and just gotten thrown out of room,” she said.
"These are non-negotiable facts and people are just like, ‘We don’t think that’s true,'" she said. "'We’re going to encourage our kids to go into farming because that’s worked for us.'"
The working class was for a long time the lifeblood of the University of Michigan. In 1935, the university’s vice president batted away the notion that the university had become a “rich man’s school,” writing in the alumni magazine that “anybody on campus knows how false and how silly this statement is.”
“Those who know the campus, who have watched students in the main going to and from classes in clothing that is inexpensive, serviceable and worn; those who have collected student fees and know how hard those fees ‘come'; those who have sat in Loan Committee meetings and heard the stories of individual efforts; those who have watched the speed and rapidity with which students go after every possible job that appears on the horizon — all these know that any statement that the University of Michigan is solely or largely a rich man’s school is a falsehood out of whole cloth,” Shirley Smith wrote.
To make his point, he included a list of occupations of students’ parents: Farmers and factory workers were among the most common.
“It is unthinkable that the boys and girls from the vast majority of the homes whose support comes from the occupations listed do not know from hard experience the value of each dollar they spend,” he wrote.
“The University of Michigan was indeed a ‘working-class’ public university for most of its history,” Duderstadt, the former president, told POLITICO.
After World War II, veterans poured onto campus with their new GI Bill benefits. So many came that the university opened satellites in Dearborn and Flint, which are now full-blown universities.
When Duderstadt arrived on campus as a professor in the late 1960s, there were still many working-class students. But he’s watched that change.
Like flagships in nearly every other state, Michigan has been wracked by budget cuts as the state legislature, beginning in the 1970s, has steadily squeezed what was once a robust funding stream.
In the late 1960s, the state covered 70 percent of instructional costs. By the late 1990s, state support covered less than 10 percent of instructional costs, which were largely unchanged when adjusted for inflation.
The trend has persisted. One recent report found that, since 2002, state support for higher education in Michigan has declined 30 percent, when adjusted for inflation.
The university, like nearly every other state school in the nation, leaned on tuition to make up the difference. In-state tuition rose, but university leaders also focused on another, more lucrative, funding stream: out-of-state students — many of them elite students from wealthy families who couldn’t get into the Ivy League. Michigan was the next best thing.
“The university had no choice but to increase out-of-state enrollments of students paying essentially private tuition levels,” Duderstadt said.
Tuition rose to $14,826 a year for Michigan students; room and board adds about $12,000. In the 1970s, tuition was less than $600 per year. Out-of-state students, who now pay $47,476 per year, make up roughly half of the student body at Michigan, up from 30 percent in the late 1960s.
But as tuition rose, wages stagnated. The median family income in Michigan in 1984 was $50,546, in 2016 dollars. In 2016, it was $57,091.
The working class was priced out.
Despite that, Michigan remains the pride of the state (except for those who attended rival Michigan State). People still identify with the university’s powerhouse — and powerfully branded — football program. Yellow “M's” are ubiquitous — on blue flags outside houses, on car bumpers, hats, T-shirts.
Even some street signs in Ypsilanti bear the university’s signature blue and yellow.
“It’s home,” Alexus Chambers, a senior at Ypsilanti Community High School, said of the university. “I’m from out here.”
The University of Michigan says it has enrolled between 27 and 34 students from Ypsilanti each of the last three years. That figure accounts for all high schools within Ypsilanti, including the district run by Edmondson, but also others, such as an International Baccalaureate school that has sent every one of its graduates to college over the last three years.
But many students in Ypsilanti still don’t see a way in. Many have to work part-time jobs to help their families. They don’t have time — or money — to take test preparation courses or, in some cases, sign up for electives like band or sports that would give them a leg up.
They see the University of Michigan’s sky-high admissions standards and think it’s just not worth it — especially when they can stay in Ypsilanti and attend Eastern Michigan University. Half of Michigan’s students scored between a 29 and a 33 on the ACT, a few points shy of a perfect score on a test shown time and again to favor wealthy students. According to ACT data, students from families making $80,000 or more scored a full 4 points higher on the test than those making less than $80,000. That gap actually grew over the past five years.
“Most of these students, it’s more about survival,” said Tonysha Emerson, a counselor at Ypsilanti Community High School. “If I can get a 22 on the ACT and go to Eastern [Michigan University], that’s easier for me.”
But the type of university a student attends makes a big difference. The University of Michigan has a graduation rate of 90 percent, and graduates make $60,100 on average after attending, according to federal data. Eastern Michigan has a 38 percent graduation rate and graduates make just $37,500 on average after graduating.
That pattern is replicated across the country: High-achieving students who attend more selective schools graduate at higher rates, earn higher incomes, and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree, according to a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report. It cited another study that underscored the power of attending a school with prestige: According to that study, 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from just 12 institutions, mostly elite private universities along the East Coast.
“If we want a nation where at least some of our leaders know first-hand what it is like to grow up poor, then the doors of selective institutions must be open to students from all communities,” the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report said. “Low-income students depend on higher education as a route to social mobility, but college will never be the great equalizer if the brightest of the poor cannot even get in the door.”
Emerson said she tries to push students — especially the school’s best students — to think about the public ivy down the road. But, she said, “most of our 17-, 18-year-olds are working at local fast-food restaurants. They’re coming from classes, going right to work; they’re helping out” their families.
It’s a problem the university is starting to address. It launched a slew of initiatives and efforts meant to diversify its student body racially over the past five decades — including the push in the 1990s that led to two Supreme Court decisions and an eventual ban on affirmative action in the state. But officials have never sought to reach the state’s poorest students in the same way — until now. The latest diversity plan includes a concerted effort to reach more low-income students.
One aspect is a sort of college prep program in Ypsilanti, Detroit and Southfield. Students can start the program in seventh grade. Theoretically, it prepares them for admissions to the flagship, and if they are accepted after graduation, then they can attend for free.
Chambers is in the program, dubbed “Wolverine Pathways,” and she said she’s gotten help with writing and SAT preparation. Without the program, she said, she doesn’t think she’d stand a chance at getting in — much less affording to attend.
“Tuition at the University of Michigan is very high,” she said. “I’d be at Eastern or Wayne State.”
But the program is extremely intensive. It requires students to attend classes after school and show up nearly every Saturday of the school year. And it has a very strict attendance policy. Emerson said one student “who’s a total ideal candidate” for the program was kicked out after a medical condition caused her to miss some of the classes.
Jordan Massey, a senior at Ypsilanti Community High School, said he wants to go to Michigan — his cousin graduated from the school and he thinks he could do it, too. But he couldn’t do the pathways program and band, which he called a “big priority,” so he chose to keep playing the alto saxophone.
“I love the program, but it’s very strict,” said Edmondson, the Ypsilanti superintendent. “You have to give every weekend. It’s difficult on a family that has other priorities. Everybody is not buying into, ‘I want to be at the University of Michigan — I’m going to give up all of this to go.”
And, it doesn’t guarantee admissions.
“That’s a hard sell,” he said. “If we don’t get in, then what?”
That many working-class families in Michigan see the state’s flagship as out of reach is not lost on university leaders.
“It drives us nuts,” said Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management. That’s because the university has long covered costs for the low-income students who get in, spending more than $170 million a year on need-based aid for undergraduates. Still, the perception persists that it’s too expensive.
It’s not just at Michigan. Research has shown that the vast majority of high-achieving students from low-income families don’t apply to any selective college — despite the fact that selective institutions with generous aid may actually cost them less than two-year colleges and less selective four-year universities to which they do apply.
It’s a perception that makes sense to Ishop, who grew up in a small town in southeast Texas. It stems from a mix of things: a sticker price much higher than that of other schools in the state, financial aid policies that make parents’ eyes glaze over, lingo — such as “demonstrated need” — that makes little sense to first-generation students.
But it also goes deeper, to issues beyond the university’s control. Ann Arbor is among the state’s wealthiest communities. Sandwiches at Zingerman’s Deli — an Ann Arbor institution that is one of the city’s most famous eateries — cost $15 or more. Street parking around the university is nearly three times as much as it is in Ypsilanti.
“Students are coming from communities that don’t have these kinds of gilded towers and fancy restaurants downtown and students from means from all over the world and the country,” Ishop said.
She recounted stopping in Bivouac, an outdoor clothing store along State Street’s strip of boutiques, when she first started working at Michigan and being stunned at the cost of coats.
“Who does that? Who pays that?” she remembers thinking.
“Perception matters,” she said. “That’s human nature. Our challenge is how do we push through that human nature tendency to explain what we do have.”
The key to reaching low-income students, she says, may be in better marketing. The highest-achieving low-income students aren’t all grouped in one community or high school. But many of those schools don’t have strong relationships with universities like Michigan and rarely send students to elite colleges, so counselors, teachers and principals may not know how to help students to apply.
A 2013 study found that reaching out to those students directly helps quite a bit. Students who received semi-personalized information about financial aid, as well as fee waivers and application guidance, were significantly more likely to apply to more schools, the study found.
So the university launched a new scholarship program aimed at low-income students in the state. Deemed the High Achieving Involved Leader (HAIL — a play on the school’s fight song, which goes “Hail! Hail! To Michigan, the leaders and the best”), the scholarship program served as an experiment, as well.
The university teamed with Susan Dynarski, a well-known education policy expert, who was able to get a list of all of the students in the state who qualified for free and reduced lunch.
Dynarski, who herself is a first-generation college graduate, had an idea of where these students were coming from. They needed something personalized, something that would catch their attention and make it very clear that they could both apply to and attend the university for free.
So the university put together a hefty packet in bright yellow and blue that they sent to the best-performing low-income students in the state. Parents also get a letter, and the university gives high school principals a list of students who received the offers, so they can make sure the student pays attention to it.
Inside is a can’t-miss hard-sell from university President Mark Schlissel: “You are an academically excellent student who has worked hard for your considerable achievements. Congratulations!” a signed note from Schlissel says. “I’m excited to make you an outstanding offer.”
The packet contains a stack of materials about the university, but perhaps most importantly, is a sheet with easy-to-read instructions on how to apply and at the bottom, a strip of tear-off coupons: “NO FEE FAFSA,” says one, promising that students don’t have to pay a dime for the federal student aid application.
It’s a marketing gimmick. The first “F” in FAFSA stands for “free.” The coupon makes no difference. The same is true for the others in the pack, which promise to waive application fees that the university wouldn’t have charged these students anyway.
But the gimmick worked. Students who received the HAIL packet applied at three times the rate of a control group. The university enrolled 262 students from 52 Michigan counties in the first year. It sent out over 1,200 more packets to students in October.
Now the university is betting on an even bigger gimmick: promising free tuition to families making $65,000 or less — even though those students already were attending free of charge for the most part. The university has begun advertising online and in movie theaters across the state.
The idea is to get the message to students early, so they can make it a goal to get into Michigan. The university wants seventh graders to hear they can go to the college for free when deciding whether or not to take algebra in the eighth grade. They want to reach eighth-graders weighing whether to sign up for Advanced Placement classes in high school.
“This is a marketing campaign,” Ishop admits. “It’s meant to be a signal to families and to students, reaching as far back into their education as possible to motivate their academic choices so they’re better candidates.”
Michigan’s efforts have shown some promise. The number of students on Pell Grants, federal aid for low-income students, have risen, though the gains are modest and have leveled off. Just 16 percent of undergraduates receive Pell Grants. Michigan still ranks among the bottom of state schools in the nation in terms of Pell enrollment.
Some want the university, and other elite publics like it, to do more by moving away from economically biased admissions standards like standardized test scores, for instance.
“They’re still creaming the cream of the cream,” said Arizona State University President Michael Crow. “The University of Michigan is worried about losing their elite status. Their elite status is not on what they produce, it’s on who they don’t admit. What elite status is that? That’s not elite status.”
Crow is also president of the University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 colleges that have banded together to create strategies to help low-income students. Some of those schools, including Arizona State, have started caring less about grades and test scores. Crow says the school will accept just about anyone with an A or B average.
“If everybody that ends up going to the great universities are the ‘A’ kids in high school, then we’ve got something wrong,” Crow said. “We’re not drawing from a breadth of talent.”
Some universities, like the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which isn’t part of the alliance, have made the decision to care less about things like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses that aren’t available in every high school and look at other aspects of a student’s résumé. For instance, did they work part time to help their family get by?
“Maybe people don’t have the same flashy credentials that students 10 miles from them may have,” said Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions.
Farmer said UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the nation’s most elite public universities, had put too much emphasis on students taking “extraordinarily difficult courses of study in high school — all college-level courses from ninth grade to when they graduate.”
He said many students had taken “16, 17, 18 [International Baccalaureate] courses.”
“We’d fallen into the trap where we sort of intuitively felt students taking hard classes in high school would help them become better students here ... that if a student took one, then taking two must better … all the way out to infinity,” he said. “That wasn’t fair. Not everybody has access to those courses.”
Ishop, the enrollment chief at Michigan, says it’s taking a more holistic approach in admissions, too.
“What we know in our world is that test scores are correlated to income, AP courses are correlated to income, applying to selective schools is correlated to income,” Ishop said. “We take all of that in context to the student’s academic environment.”
Despite some students' sky-high test scores, the university does not disqualify applicants without them.
“When you have a student that’s presenting … a 21 on the ACT — that is well below our 31 average, but that 21 might be 6 points higher than the average test score for that school,” Ishop said. “That’s one of the best scores that school has ever seen, and that student is still very attractive to us, and has shown they have fortitude and academic skills. … That’s a student we’ll pay close attention to.”
But some students don’t understand that. Ishop acknowledged that showing high school students the average test score at Michigan “can be a dream killer.” They’ve stopped presenting the figure at some high schools.
And few high school students realize the lengths the university may go to to help them attend.
Courtney Morris, a transition coordinator at the River Rouge school district near Detroit, said she took some of her students to Ann Arbor last winter to show them the campus, which many had never seen.
“My students loved it,” she said. “But a lot of the comments I got were like, ‘I would love to be here, but I know I can’t be here — I don’t have the grades to be here, I don’t have the money, I can’t afford it.”
The perceptions have become deeply ingrained, and no university has yet found a completely effective way to combat them. Universities like Michigan are finally waking up, but their reputations have already suffered. According to recent Gallup polling, very few working-class Americans have faith in higher education. Just 49 percent of those making less than $75,000 a year and identified as Democrats had confidence in higher education. The figure was 34 percent for Republicans.
It’s a stark shift — and one that college leaders say needs to be turned around quickly.
“The notion was that these institutions were powerfully important for the success of the democracy,” Crow said. “If you want the democracy to work, if you want people to have more productive lives, if you want the economy to be more competitive and adaptive, if you want more participation in the democratic process, then educational attainment is really important.”