Harvard Economist Reveals Impact of Guaranteeing Free College Tuition

Participants in a University of Michigan program that guarantees low-income students free tuition upon acceptance applied to and enrolled in college at higher rates. At an April 11 event, Susan Dynarski presented these findings, raising questions about how Amherst could implement similar programs.

Harvard Economist Reveals Impact of Guaranteeing Free College Tuition
Dynarski, a first-generation college student herself, played a key role in designing the University of Michigan’s High Achieving Involved Leader Scholarship. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

“There is a huge temptation to just educate kids about financial aid,” Susan Dynarski, an economist and professor of education at Harvard University, told a crowd in Stirn Auditorium on Wednesday, April 12. “[But] there is a huge body of evidence that this does nothing.”

At the event, titled “The Power of Promising Free Tuition,” Dynarski presented her findings on the positive impacts of a University of Michigan program that guarantees high-achieving low-income students no-strings-attached free tuition upon acceptance. The event was co-sponsored by the Provost’s Office, the economics department, and the education studies program.

Dynarski was introduced by Assistant Professor of Economics Joshua Hyman, who completed his Ph.D. under Dynarski at Michigan. He emphasized the unique perspective that Dynarski brings to the field.

“Sue is not your typical, elite, high-profile economist,” he said. “Sue was a first-generation college student from a low-income family. She attended Harvard as an undergraduate and then earned her Ph.D. in economics from MIT at a time when female economists were really few and far between.”

He emphasized the impact of Dynarski’s extensive scholarship, which has focused on education policy. “Her research has shaped economics as a discipline and shaped financial aid policy, including here at Amherst College,” he said.

Dynarski, who taught at Michigan until 2021, played a key role in designing the program she discussed during the talk, known as the High Achieving Involved Leader (HAIL) scholarship (the acronym is a nod to the university's fight song).

Throughout her presentation, Dynarski emphasized that rather than simply providing students with information about financial aid, the HAIL scholarship offers a “guarantee.” Students do not need to provide any proof of their financial need, eliminating the uncertainty that is often inherent in the financial aid process.

The program identifies students from public high schools in Michigan who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and achieve high SAT scores and guarantees them four years of free tuition, conditional on acceptance. Students are notified that they have received the scholarship in the fall of their senior year, before they decide which colleges to apply to.

In a study conducted by Dynarski and other researchers, the program’s guarantee was shown to make high-achieving low-income students 42 percent more likely to apply to the university, and 15 percent percent more likely to eventually enroll.

Dynarski argued that the HAIL scholarship was so successful because rather than simply informing students about its financial aid policy, the university makes a guarantee of free tuition; students do not need to fill out any paperwork — not even the FAFSA — to claim their scholarship.

She emphasized the way in which the financial aid process can often be mired in bureaucracy, forcing students who have often been already identified as low-income by federal or state agencies to provide further proof of that fact.

“The state has already determined based on needs testing done for other programs that you were low income,” she said. “We do not need to, again, have you prove to us that you're poor.”

Dynarski said that the college application process was often overwhelming and stress-inducing for low-income students.

For many parents and students, she said, the fear of getting one’s hopes up just to be disappointed by a financial aid package can be crippling, preventing high-achieving low-income students from applying to schools they could get into.

“No parents want their kid to get into college and then have to say, ‘You can't afford it.’ And no kid wants to force their parents to say that thing to them,” she said. “The best, safest thing to do is to just not apply to someplace like the University of Michigan.”

Dynarski argued that the HAIL scholarship was able to effectively raise application and enrollment rates among its target population by eliminating this uncertainty.

Explaining the program's motivation, Dynarski began her talk by presenting figures showing that inequality across income groups has increased in recent decades. She later conceded that programs like the HAIL scholarship would not fully erase those disparities, but are nevertheless steps in the right direction.

“I’m a marginalist,” she said. “You try to fix things in your backyard.”

To that end, Dynarski indicated in a question-and-answer period after her talk that a program like the HAIL scholarship could be implemented at colleges like Amherst.

She imagined the college partnering with a school system like Boston Public Schools and extending an offer of free tuition to high-achieving students eligible for free-and-reduced lunch. Most such students would in most cases already receive a full ride from Amherst after filling out financial aid forms, but by providing a pre-application guarantee to this group, the college would be eliminating this layer of uncertainty.

The college could partner with peer institutions, she said. “I’d rather see consortia of schools do this, rather than one-offs.”

Adaku Nwokiwu ’23 attended the event for her class “Race, Education, and Belonging.”

In a message to The Student, she said, “It was insightful to hear a bit about how what we study can be put into action, how the HAIL program meets high-achieving students halfway in creating a path to higher education.”

Nwokiwu said that she found Dynarski’s perspective on financial aid policy eye-opening.

“I thought it was important for the audience to hear Prof. Dynarski confront the notion that ‘information’ in and of itself equals power,” she said. “Dynarski made it clear that simply info-dumping with high schoolers, with soon-to-be college students, was never enough to bring students into the fold.

Also among the event’s attendees was Nick Torres ’25, an education studies major and cofounder of a nonprofit that seeks to address inequities in higher education by providing free college counseling services.

In a message to The Student, he argued that the college already had fairly robust methods of communicating its financial aid policies to students, but could nevertheless take a few lessons from Dynarski.

“The financial aid at Amherst has made attending the school a possibility for me and my family; having resources like the Amherst Within Reach Program and the Net Price Calculators were super helpful in realizing that Amherst is a financially viable option,” he wrote. Referencing the HAIL scholarship, he continued, “I hope that Amherst can implement some of these methods in the near future to further encourage socio-economic diversity.”