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Tackling Higher Education’s Elitist Reputation With Targeted Marketing

Tackling Higher Education's Elitist Reputation With Targeted Marketing

Sarah Steimer

uofm MAIN1

Four-year institutions like the University of Michigan seem unattainable in the eyes of many low-income families. But U of M is using targeted marketing to assure students that if they work hard, the school will take care of the rest​

College doesn’t always seem accessible to everyone, particularly not for students from low-income families. School administrations can tout their financial aid packages, but that doesn’t mean word gets out to the families they would benefit most.​

And even then, the language used in financial aid services can be confusing. 

Add to this the perception of higher education as elitist—a claim propped up by the many expenses it takes just to get accepted: tutors, test prep and application fees to name a few.


A 2017 report by the Equality ​of Opportunity Project​ found the overall number of children from low-income families attending college increased rapidly in the 2000s, but the bulk of this increase occurred at two-year colleges and for-profit institutions. According to the report, the percentage of students at four-year and selective colleges from the poorest families saw no significant change.

Working-class families can perceive enrollment at state schools like the University of Michigan as unattainable. The Equality of Opportunity Project found 16% of University of Michigan students come from families in the bottom 60% of earners, while 9% of students come from families in the top 1% of income distribution. Although the 2016 median household income in Michigan was $50,803, the median income of parents sending their children to U of M was $156,100.

Acknowledging the perception of low-income inaccessibility, the University of Michigan launched an initiative called the Go Blue Guarantee, under which U of M will sponsor tuition for state residents with a family income of less than $65,000. Marketing News spoke with Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management at the university, about how the school is raising awareness of the program and changing the public’s view of the institution.

​​Q: How did the University of Michigan get here—here being such a high percentage of students from high-income families and a shrinking population from low-earning families? 

A: The price of higher education has changed a lot over the last couple decades, be it housing or the periphery cost associated with getting an education. 

In most cases, a typical student stays within 75 to 150 miles of where they’re from to go to school. Institutions that have a national or statewide profile tend to be where these kinds of [accessibility] issues are discussed. Some institutions attract students who can be mobile and who have a higher-ed background in their family. This notion of going away to school is not a concept that’s unfamiliar to those students; in fact, it’s something they’ve been striving toward their entire lives. 

All of those things have contributed to institutions like ours having a higher population of high-income students relative to lower-income students who might be making different choices for a lot of different reasons. There’s been a lot of work—by the College Board, institutions, community-based organizations—to change awareness and behavior, so talented students with the smarts to get into some of these schools that seem out of reach can pursue that. Likewise, [there are] schools changing their financial aid policies and the way they promote themselves to students to let them know that there are welcoming places for them. They have aid to help students financially and a desire to have economic diversity represented on their campus.

Q: Not everyone has parents who are alumni. Has there been an effort to change the perception that there must be precedent in the family to go to U of M?

A: There’s been a lot of conversation in the last 15 years around diversity in college admissions. We focus a lot on racial and ethnic diversity, but diversity is larger than that. It’s also socio-economic diversity. It’s geographic diversity. It’s having first-generation students in your student body. Institutions are much more deliberate now about how they present themselves to those populations. We’ve come to be purposeful about making sure, for a state institution like Michigan, that we’re reaching out across the state and into the Upper Peninsula and telling those students, “If you do the hard work that it takes to be a high-achieving student, to be admissible, there’s a place for you here—and we’ll help with the cost.” 

The largest surge of college-going students that we had would have been back with the GI Bill. We had a very different population of students pursuing higher education [after WWII]. That created the first wave of second-generation students and started to build these alumni bases. In the last couple of decades or so, there’s a pursuit to make sure that we’re remembering that and going back to students that haven’t had that kind of access, haven’t sought that kind of opportunity and providing for them as well.

Q: That’s a good transition into talking about the Go Blue Guarantee. How are you getting the word out about this program?

A: When I arrived at Michigan, President [Mark] Schlissel had been here a couple of months longer than I had, so he was relatively new to campus. He had gone around the state and had conversations to get to know Michigan and the University of Michigan and our influencers. One of the questions he asked was, “How can we simplify our messaging about financial aid?” The University of Michigan met full demonstrated need for families in the state of Michigan, so if you were a Michigander, and you had financial need, we would meet it. There are only a few public institutions that have the resources to be able to do that, and yet the perception out there was that Michigan was too expensive. Certainly, if you look at a price tag of upwards of $28,000 for a state where the median income is around $65,000, it seems pretty out of reach. 

There’s a disconnect there. We also understand that financial aid is complex, and the language around financial aid is complex. You need to explain what “demonstrated need” means and what all of the forms are and why you need them. His [Schlissel’s] challenge was to inform in a language that was clear about our promise. He also wanted to make sure that we signal to students that cost is not a prohibitive factor for families in the state of Michigan. If they think, “I can’t go to college anyway. I can’t afford it. Why would I take algebra in the eighth grade or spend that extra time reading?,” we wanted to influence those behaviors early on, so students could make choices that might prepare them for the University of Michigan. 

We wanted to make sure that our promise would be sustainable. We were approached by a faculty member [Sue Dynarski] who’s very active around the simplification of the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. She wanted to test a message to families right off the bat, giving them up-front information about cost, what we’re going to pay for and what’s free to them and put it in their hands early to see if that would change their behavior as it relates to applying to the institution. 

We worked with her and a team of researchers to test a marketing message. We did it as a research study, allowing us access to state-level data that would identify students that we could send these packages to. We reached out to students, their families and their principals and counselors. The packet said that we had identified the student and would like to offer them the HAIL (High Achieving Involved Leader) Scholarship, which satisfies tuition at the university. Their application fee would be covered, the FAFSA is free to apply for financial aid and the fee for the profile—which is another financial aid document—would be covered as well. We told them: Your job is to work hard. Get the best grades you can, be active and engaged. Let’s see if you can get admitted, and then we’ll take care of this other piece. 

We had really good success in the first two years of the intervention with a marked increase in applications from the students that received the packet, relative to the students that didn’t receive the packet. In 2016, applications increased by 41% and in year two by 39%. That helped frame what became the Go Blue Guarantee. We spent more than a year on analysis to make sure we could set a standard dollar amount of aid that was sustainable over time. We didn’t want to put something out and have to change it. We were able to [cover tuition costs for students] at that median income level because we think that sends a powerful signal to the state. It is not a promise of admission, but it does take some of the sting away from students.

We announced the guarantee about this time last year. We first took care of all of the current students on campus that qualified for the Go Blue Guarantee and made sure that they were receiving the promise. This incoming class that will arrive with us in the fall will be the first incoming class to receive that promise.

Q: And you have another program called Wolverine Pathways, correct?

A: A team of folks from the university recognized that there was a disconnect between preparedness for the University of Michigan and the population that we had in our applicant pool. When we have students coming from differently resourced backgrounds, it’s difficult for all students to achieve at the same level. Our admissions process looks at students in context, so we don’t compare a student in a school that doesn’t have [advanced placement] classes and expect them to have AP classes on their transcript. That doesn’t make sense. Sometimes students need supplemental work to be successful here, even if they are the strongest student coming from their particular environment. The program starts in the seventh grade. It’s a rigorous commitment that’s meant to change the pipeline of students and increase the number of students from diverse backgrounds who are ready to apply to institutions like ours when they finally get to high school. [Editor’s note: Of the 89 high school seniors in the WP program, approximately 41 will be matriculating to University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and 27 to University of Michigan-Dearborn this fall.]

Q: Let’s say you get these students prepared, and they’re accepted. Does the school see any remaining barriers for students to feel welcome in Ann Arbor? I’ve only passed through the town, and it seemed like night and day compared to the surrounding areas. 

A: Night and day, you’re exactly right. I came from a really small town in Southeast Texas before I attended the University of Texas at Austin, and I had a gazillion and one episodes of culture shock going to this large, gilded flagship institution. Ann Arbor is very much in that same vein. It’s a wealthy campus, a wealthy community relative to the state at large. It looks and feels different. One of the things we’ve been very careful of as we ran the HAIL study that led us to the Go Blue Guarantee is to be thoughtful about some of these issues. When our first group of students came in, we ran focus groups and did research projects to ask them these questions: Tell us what was right and wrong about the process. How are you feeling? Where are you disconnected? 

One student was walking on State Street, went into a store, saw a Canada Goose jacket and commented that it was $800. Her comment in this focus group was, “That’s more than my mom makes in a month.” It’s a coat, and they’re everywhere! It’s so different. 

We don’t want to be guilty of just changing the numbers on the front end, bringing more students in and changing our percentages. We also want to be very thoughtful about serving the students once they get here and developing communities for them. Some of them were very vocal with us the first year about where we were good at that and where we weren’t. We listened to them and created programming to make sure that we were supportive of them. One of those was the SuccessConnects program that’s meant to close the gaps.

[We’re] measuring their retention rates: Are they moving through the university at the same pace as other students? Early data says that they are. There are always gaps with students, but it’s not as significant as it could be, so we’re pleased that we’re making progress in that way.

Q: A lot of these programs we’ve discussed are still new, but what have you learned so far?

A: From a marketing perspective, we’re trying to keep a lot of data on those things we can measure. In the spaces where we’ve used digital marketing, we’re watching the returns: Who’s looking at it? Who’s clicking through it? Who’s not? What are parents seeing? What are students looking at? 

We also reached out to parts of the state with specific traditional marketing pieces, ads and community bulletins to try to figure out the right way to get in. I came from a small town, and it really resonates with me that small communities tend to get their information from local news. We addressed some of the bigger digital media platforms, but we also have to think about the local advocate. [Local news outlets] might be willing to do a story for us. 

We’ve been thinking about our media presence more strategically. It can’t all just come from Ann Arbor because that alone will carry a [political association]. There has to be buy-in, and we have to make sure that people believe what we say, what we’re doing and how we can help them. The marketing will continue to change, and we’ll respond to what works. Applications are up at the university, but they’re also up in lower-income populations, and that’s what we’re looking for: Are the behaviors changing? Are they familiar with the Go Blue Guarantee? 

That whole notion of making sure this was sustainable for us resonates through a lot of our decisions. We’re in this for the long haul. It’s not going to change tomorrow, and we’re not going to claim success tomorrow. Even if we see [application] increases this year, this is a long-haul change in culture and behavior.  

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.