Introduced during the 2018 winter semester, the Go Blue Guarantee provides Michigan residents who are accepted into the U-M and have a family income of less than $65,000—and assets below $50,000—with the opportunity to receive free in-state tuition for four years of undergraduate study on the Ann Arbor campus.
Go Blue Guarantee students are often also eligible for additional financial aid to assist with costs for residence hall housing, meals and books. In Fall 2018, over 1,650 undergraduate students received an estimated value of nearly $27 million in tuition support through the Go Blue Guarantee.
The Go Blue Guarantee builds on an earlier initiative known as the HAIL (High Achieving Involved Leadership) Scholarship Program. The objective of the HAIL Scholarship Program was to explore and test how to economically diversify the student body by offering a commitment of four years of tuition to low-income, high-achieving students and their families.
Launched in Fall 2015 as a pilot program, the scholarship provided a new approach for connecting with qualified students who were uncertain about their ability to attend the University of Michigan.
Goals and Objectives
The primary goal of the Go Blue Guarantee is to increase the socio-economic diversity of the Ann Arbor campus by making a world class U-M education affordable and accessible to all Michigan residents, especially those who might otherwise assume that U-M is beyond their reach financially.
The Go Blue Guarantee offers a commitment of four years of free tuition and fees for qualified in-state students from families whose income is below $65,000, renewable for up to four years. Similar to HAIL, the goal is to encourage students from lower SES families to apply to Michigan.
Audience and Collaborators
Key individuals involved in the development of the initiative included the university president, the provost, the vice provost for enrollment management, research faculty, and senior budget administrators as well as U-M marketing professionals.
Planning and Implementation
The history of the Go Blue Guarantee began with the appointment of a new president, who lamented the fact that U-M was widely and inaccurately perceived by many low-income families as being unaffordable. In reality, with all financial aid sources factored in, Michigan is the state’s least expensive institution of higher learning for those with financial need.
The challenge became: how do we bridge this gap and simplify our financial aid messaging?
As a first step, the Office of Enrollment Management (OEM)—in consultation with the provost and senior budget administrators—conducted a broad assessment of financial aid and how it was allocated. Based on their findings, they collaborated with Dr. Susan Dynarski, a Professor of Public Policy, Education, and Economics at U-M, to develop the HAIL Scholars pilot program.
Following the successful launch of the HAIL Scholars program, the planning team worked with external consultants to help unravel the university’s existing financial aid structure. This process gave them a strong understanding of how to think strategically about maximizing financial aid, and how to best communicate with prospective applicants and the campus community.
By implementing the Go Blue Guarantee, the planners took a proactive approach: not only formalizing but also publicizing and aggressively marketing the U-M’S promise of financial aid for qualified low-income students.
The marketing campaign involved careful planning. This involved confirming the dollar amount offered and the financial eligibility requirements; targeting key audiences; and choosing appropriate media formats and channels.
Ultimately, the planners created two separate campaigns: one for the Go Blue Guarantee itself, and a second campaign entitled You Can Go Blue (Even If You’re Over 65K) aimed at introducing prospective applicants to other sources of financial aid.
To demonstrate institutional commitment and ensure breadth and depth of coverage, representatives from the OEM Marketing and Communications team partnered with the university’s executive communications department to execute a large scale marketing campaign.
Evaluation and Impact
To date, the program has been extremely effective in increasing the socio-economic diversity of the Ann Arbor campus. The HAIL Scholarship program and the Go Blue Guarantee have both shown progress in improving the application rates from low income students. The HAIL Scholarship resulted in a three-fold increase in applications from qualified students.
During the first year of the Go Blue Guarantee, the Ann Arbor campus saw a 25 percent increase in applications and a 6 percent increase in the number of low-income first-year students choosing to attend U-M.
Overall, both HAIL Scholars and the Go Blue Guarantee were successful in helping U-M reduce the “undermatching” pattern referenced so often in research: a phenomenon in which students from low-income backgrounds tend to undermatch (and under-apply) to colleges based on the selectivity of the institution.
The HAIL Scholars pilot program provided valuable baseline data demonstrating what worked and what didn’t. The numbers continue to tell the story. By linking policy and practice to research, and by supporting the program with strong, strategic marketing communications, the Go Blue Guarantee has continued to fuel and increasing number of low-income students applying to U-M.
- The biggest challenge is to stay focused and to think long and deeply about your strategy. Resist the appeal of flashy new programs and approaches that often turn out to be expensive and unsustainable. Be absolutely certain that you can keep whatever financial commitment you make.
- Be sure to have the right people at the table, solidly behind the program. That includes planners and active advocates from admissions, finance, budget, faculty, executive leadership, enrollment management experts and financial aid experts. Go all in, and pull in enough people to cover all the bases.
- The Go Blue Guarantee has become a strong model for other institutions, among them The Ohio State University (the Buckeye Promise), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Bucky’s Tuition Promise), and The University of Texas at Austin (Texas Advance Commitment). Look to other institutions for models, but be sure to evaluate them in terms of your own culture, context and situation.
- When it comes to planning your marketing communications around the program, consider testing various approaches. The marketing efforts employed by U-M may not be appropriate or affordable for other institutions.
- Remember: it’s not just about getting students in, but also about helping them be successful and providing an equitable experience along the way. With that in mind, the U-M planners created a position of research and data analysis within OEM. They also evaluated outcomes based on student data, focus groups and surveys to determine what went right and wrong during the applicants’ transition to the university, and to locate major gaps in support for students. The results of these research efforts led to the development of SuccessConnects, a holistic support program specifically for low-income students. In addition, the U-M has created a task force focused on issues related to student support.
- To achieve buy-in and help assure future growth, support for the initiative has to be institutional. It’s not enough to have advocates in the presidential suite or at the VP-level. Also, keep in mind that building the necessary campuswide buy-in will require considerable resources, some of which may have to be diverted from other programs.