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IES Grant

Title: Early First-Dollar Categorical Need-Based Aid: A New Model for Making College Affordable?
Center: NCER Year: 2022
Principal Investigator: Michelmore, Katherine Awardee: University of Michigan
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (07/01/2022 – 06/30/2026) Award Amount: $2,702,034
Type: Initial Efficacy Award Number: R305A220070

Co-Principal Investigator: Tompkins-Stange, Megan

Purpose: The purpose of this project is to evaluate how the Tuition Incentive Program (TIP), a large first-dollar aid program in Michigan, impacts postsecondary outcomes for low-income high school students. 40 percent of Michigan high school graduates are eligible for TIP, which provides tuition assistance and fees for the first two years of college, and currently funds 25,000 students annually. TIP has three features that distinguish it from many state need-based financial aid programs: 1) It is a "first-dollar" scholarship that can be stacked on top of other aid sources, including Federal Pell Grants; 2) Eligibility is based on categorical participation in Medicaid, a well-established safety net program; and 3) Students are notified of their eligibility as early as eighth grade. This project will conduct the first rigorous evaluation of TIP, which will yield broader lessons for college affordability policy in other states and at the federal level.

Project Activities: Researchers will use a mixed-methods approach. In the first stage of the project, researchers will draw upon administrative data to perform a descriptive analysis of program eligibility and take-up. This initial analysis will inform the subsequent quantitative and qualitative portions of the project and will also help practitioners and policymakers implement the program. To estimate TIP program impacts, researchers will conduct a regression discontinuity (RD) analysis, comparing students just barely eligible for TIP to those barely ineligible using administrative education data for all students in Michigan over the past decade. To complement the quantitative analyses and explore mechanisms and barriers to TIP access and enrollment, researchers will conduct an in-depth qualitative study which includes interviews with students, parents, counselors, and TIP program staff. The latter will also provide inputs for a cost and cost effectiveness study.

Products: Researchers will prepare policy briefs and presentations for statewide and national audiences, and peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This project will take place in the state of Michigan, which has 15 public four-year universities, 28 public two-year colleges, and numerous private institutions. With a degree attainment rate of 49.1 percent, the state falls just below the national average of 51.9 percent.

Sample: The sample will include all graduates of Michigan public high schools between spring of 2010 and 2023, comprising approximately 1.4 million individuals. Some analysis will also include the additional 300,000 students enrolled in Michigan public high schools as ninth graders who were expected to graduate during this time but did not. Most impact analysis will focus on the subset of students who received Medicaid for some time between their ninth birthday and the time that they completed twelfth grade, with particular attention paid to individuals that are close to the TIP Medicaid eligibility threshold. The sample for the qualitative study will include 130 students, parents, counselors, and TIP program staff in three contrasting geographic regions.

Intervention: The TIP program provides a first-dollar scholarship which covers in-district two-year college tuition and fees (or equivalent), as well as more limited aid at four-year institutions. The average award is $2,600 per recipient per year. This aid can be stacked on top of other financial aid sources, including the Federal Pell Grant. Similar to promise programs, the Michigan Office of Scholarships and Grants within the Michigan Treasury informs students of their eligibility as early as eighth grade. TIP eligibility also triggers outreach by program staff, who nudge students to learn about and apply for financial aid by submitting the FAFSA and developing relationships with school counselors.

Research Design and Methods: The project will use a mixed-methods approach with two components. The quantitative analysis will use a RD design, comparing outcomes of students who just barely meet the eligibility criteria of receiving Medicaid for at least 24 of any 36 consecutive month period between their ninth birthday and the time that they completed twelfth grade, to the patterns of students who just barely miss this eligibility criteria. Administrative data will permit estimates of the impact of TIP eligibility on numerous outcomes, including college enrollment, institutional choice, persistence, and degree attainment, even for students who leave the state. Contrasting estimated impacts by timing of eligibility and various student and school characteristics will identify the role of several moderators and mechanisms. A similar approach will be used to examine high school outcomes such as course taking and graduation. Researchers will pair the quantitative analysis with qualitative interviews of students, parents, school counselors, and TIP program staff to illuminate why the program works for some students and not others, as well as the specific types of barriers that prevent students from taking advantage of TIP. The two components of the mixed methods approach will inform and build on one another during the course of the study. For example, quantitative impact analysis will uncover heterogeneity which qualitative researchers will explore through interviews. Interviews, in turn, will identify barriers that quantitative researchers will explore through moderation analysis.

Control Condition: The control condition will include students who did not receive a TIP award who are otherwise similar to students who received TIP. These students are still likely to receive financial aid from other sources such as the Federal Pell Grant and state aid programs other than TIP. Students in the control group will also have access to school counselors and college advisors, though program staff will not proactively reach out to them in connection with the TIP program.

Key Measures: Primary outcomes include FAFSA filing, college enrollment, college type (public two-year, public four-year, private non-profit, for-profit), college persistence, and degree attainment. Secondary outcomes include high school completion, course-taking patterns in high school and college, college major, and college credit accumulation.

Data Analytic Strategy: Quantitative researchers will use methods consistent with WWC Regression Discontinuity Design Standards, including local polynomial regression with optimal bandwidth choice, to identify the effect of TIP from comparisons among students barely eligibility to barely ineligible for TIP. Validity will be assessed by testing for discontinuities in pre-determined characteristics and in the density of Medicaid eligibility. Qualitative researchers will use a grounded approach to understand the experiences of the study participants through in-depth interviewing and development of comparative case studies. Researchers will inductively develop an initial set of analytical categories that describe elements appearing in a first set of transcribed interviews. Subsequent interviews will lead to refinements of these categories as more transcripts are coded. The team will then seek emergent themes and organize them into contextualized narratives.

Cost Analysis: For the cost analysis, researchers will use the Ingredients Method to calculate the cost of the TIP program to the state. Cost effectiveness analysis will draw upon results from the cost study and the impact analysis to compare the efficiency of different versions of the TIP program to each other and also to other rigorously evaluated interventions that have been shown to increase college attainment.