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Whether or not a low-income student takes up an institutional offer of “free college” depends largely on how the proposition is presented, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Looking at data from the University of Michigan, researchers found that low-income, high-achieving in-state students who received a personal letter of encouragement and an unconditional offer of four years of “free tuition” through the university’s HAIL scholarship program were significantly more likely to apply, be admitted and enroll in the institution than students who only received information about financial aid or a conditional offer of assistance.

To determine exactly why, researchers sent mailings to three groups of qualified low-income high school seniors. The control group received standard recruitment materials and information about financial aid, the Go Blue Encouragement group received a personal letter of encouragement from the university president and an offer of “up to four years” of free tuition and fees contingent upon eligibility as determined through financial aid applications, and the HAIL Scholarship group received a personal letter of encouragement from the university president and an unconditional offer of four years of free tuition and fees, with no forms required.

Both the HAIL scholarship and the Go Blue package increased applications among low-income students, by 28 percentage points and eight percentage points, respectively, the results show. But the HAIL scholarship also increased admission (by 10 percentage points) and enrollment (by nine percentage points), while those increases among the Go Blue group were statistically insignificant.

The researchers surmised that students “place a high value on financial certainty” up front in making decisions about higher education.

“Our findings suggest that a straightforward, zero-tuition program like HAIL would substantially expand enrollments among low-income students,” the working paper reads. “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.”