I Have a Question for High School Guidance Counselors in Michigan

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Annie Ma writes today about a new study at the University of Michigan that tests a simple intervention to get more applications from smart kids who can’t afford UM’s tuition:

A new working paper suggests that removing those barriers with a promise of financial aid can significantly increase the number of low-income students who apply to and enroll in a selective college….The school sent personalized mailers to high-achieving, low-income students, their parents, and their principals, telling them that if the students got into UM they’d get full tuition because they qualified for a High Achieving Involved Leader Scholarship.
Of the students who received the letters, 67 percent applied to UM—more than twice the rate of the control group, made up of similar students who only got a postcard informing them of the school’s application deadlines. The group that heard about the scholarship was also twice as likely to enroll at UM; 27 percent of them did.

But wait. Perhaps UM is merely poaching kids who would have gone to another selective university if UM hadn’t sent the packet? The researchers say no: “Nearly half of HAIL’s effect on enrollment is diversion from two-year colleges and non-attendance. The other half of the enrollment effect is drawn from four-year colleges that are less selective than University of Michigan….Typical among the target institutions mentioned by students were regional, four-year institutions such as Grand Valley State, Ferris State, Central Michigan University, Wayne State University, and Eastern Michigan University.”
Let’s take this at face value: a simple packet telling low-income students about state financial aid that they already qualify for increased applications from 26 percent to 67 percent and admissions from 12 percent to 27 percent. At the risk of displaying terminal naivete, WTF is going on here? If mere knowledge of state aid programs is all it takes to make a huge difference in application and enrollment, what are high school guidance counselors doing these days?
I know, I know, they’re overworked and underpaid and spend a ton of time on ADHD kids and personalized plans for disabled kids and so forth. I get that. But advising bright kids about their college options and letting them know about financial aid they qualify for—isn’t that part of their core mission? Are they doing it, but somehow a blue and maize mailer is wildly more convincing? Or are they not doing it at all, and the mailers come as a surprise to the families that get them?
I demand another study.