Skip to main content
U-M Poverty Solutions Logo U-M Poverty Solutions Logo


Back to faculty research

How Students Make College Decisions: The Role of Family, School and Financial Aid Provision

The project: This project aimed to better understand how students make decisions about what to pursue after high school, and the role of family, school, geographic context, and available financial aid in shaping those decisions.

The process: The research pilot, which was later expanded to an ongoing study, consisted of interviews with 36 University of Michigan students who received free tuition and HAIL scholarship offers and 20 parents who live in cities in Southeast Michigan or suburban and rural areas outside Southeast Michigan. The study tested the mechanisms that influence students’ college decisions, like personalized offers compared to general information and an unconditional promise of a four-year full scholarship compared to eligibility for free tuition.

Results: The researchers noted the following themes that emerged from the research pilot:

  • Some students hesitated to take up the HAIL offer because of the concerns they had about fitting in and being able to succeed due to the perceived rigor of U-M; these students feared the failure they might face leading to embarrassment upon returning home as well as compromising their degree completion and opted for what they saw as more sure bet options, like less selective local colleges.
  • Other students still viewed the utility of college through the lens of career training, feeling as though they needed a set career path prior to beginning college, making an elite place like U-M seem less useful.
  • A few students seemed to mistrust financial aid offers, concerned that later changes in their aid might lead them to struggle financially. This is one way that HAIL may have influenced student decisions, by making a clear guarantee beyond the first year.

Susan Dynarski, formerly U-M School of Education; School of Public Policy; and College of Literature, Science and the Arts
Stefanie DeLuca, Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
Katherine Michelmore, U-M School of Public Policy