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Sarri Family Fellowship for Research on Educational Attainment of Children in Low Income Families

The Sarri Family Fellowship supports a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan to conduct research related to improving the educational attainment of students from low income families. The fellowship is primarily intended for social science research on improving the chances for low income students to attend and succeed in post-secondary educational institutions. The fellowship is open to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from any school or college at the University of Michigan.

Application Process

Information about the competition, award amount, and eligibility, along with links to apply, will be available on this website at the end of the calendar year.

Please email any questions to [email protected].

Award Winners

2024: Boarding, Schooling and Academic Achievement Gap

By Junchao Tang

Project Description

My research, titled “Boarding Schooling and Academic Achievement Gap,” explores the complex roles schools play in either perpetuating or mitigating educational inequalities, particularly in relation to socioeconomic status (SES). This investigation draws upon longitudinal data from both China and the United States, employing innovative design and analysis techniques to examine how different schooling contexts influence academic achievement gaps. Inspired by my own experiences and the profound debates surrounding education’s role in social mobility, this project aims to contribute valuable insights into the policies and practices that can make education a more effective lever for equality. The fellowship’s support is crucial for advancing this work, allowing me to delve deeper into the nuances of how schooling environments impact students from varied SES backgrounds and to explore broader policy implications.

2024: SMOTE, XGBoost, Action! Leveraging Modern Machine Learning to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism Rates for Students from Low-Income Families

By Tiffany Wu

Project Description

As a PhD candidate, I am broadly interested in using causal inference and machine learning methods to help inform the development of more effective and equitable education interventions. In particular, my research project for my dissertation focuses on harnessing the potential of modern machine learning methods to transform our approach to mitigating chronic absenteeism. Patterns of chronic absenteeism reflect issues in educational equity: Students from low-income families and communities of color are more likely to be chronically absent, and many studies have linked chronic absenteeism to lower academic achievement, and a lower likelihood of graduating high school and attending post-secondary educational institutions. While machine learning methods have been commonly employed in other disciplines—for example, in financial technology for credit card fraud detection—the field of education has been slower to adopt these methods. To bridge this gap, I examine how modern machine learning algorithms can be used for the vital task of proactively identifying students who are at risk of becoming chronically absenteeism, thereby facilitating timely interventions and supports, and improving these students’ chances of succeeding in school. My research is deeply influenced by my previous work as a public high school teacher on the South Side of Chicago and then as a research analyst for an education non-profit prior to starting my PhD.

2023: School & Neighborhood Racial Composition: How inequality is reinforced through social policy & parent preferences

By Elly Field

Project Description

In my dissertation research, I examine the relationship between school and neighborhood racial segregation from multiple perspectives to understand how the links between these contexts create and perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequality. Much of the racial disparity in school-level test scores is accounted for by school poverty level, rather than the racial composition of schools, indicating that the combination of racial inequality and racial segregation of schools constrains the educational opportunities of students of color and low-income students. Educational experiences early in life set the foundation for later chances of high school graduation, post-secondary attainment, and lifetime income. In the first chapter of my dissertation, I examine how parents make decisions about the racial makeups of the schools they send their children to and the neighborhoods they live in using an original survey experiment. In another chapter of my dissertation, I look at how school and neighborhood racial compositions change over time, shaping enduring patterns of racial segregation. I also look at how school choice alternatives can affect these patterns of racial changes by shaping the options that parents have for their children’s schools. With this research, I hope to deeply investigate how the link between neighborhoods and schools in the United States helps reinforce racial inequality with the ultimate goal of informing governments and policymakers.

2022: Diapers, Debt, & Degrees: The Practical and Theoretical Implications of Maternal Postnatal Educational Attainment

By Briana Starks

Project Description

My commitment to underrepresented students is evident in both my research and service work. I find the balance of engaging in meaningful scholarship to highlight the inequalities in higher education with my mentoring work for pipeline programs to increase retention of talented undergraduates from diverse backgrounds as the foundation for my passion and drive. I know firsthand that higher education can serve as a catalyst for growth and development in individuals and communities, and I feel privileged to get to play a small part in the journey of others as they pursue their goals. My dissertation is a project that investigates an alternative pathway to the standard life course trajectory and what this deviation means for women with regards to themselves, their families, and their financial wellbeing. Over 22% of all college students in the U.S. are caring for children. Yet their graduation rates are suboptimal and their experiences are largely unknown. This project investigates the subjugated narratives of low-income student mothers at one elite four-year university to understand how policies promote or hinder their degree attainment and the subsequent degree attainment of their children.

2022: Financial Aid Award Letters and College Choice: A Mixed Methods Study

By Emma Bausch

Project Description

My dissertation uses the behavioral economic theory of mental accounting to consider how prospective students and their families compare financial aid offers, think about paying for college, and eventually choose a college. College is expensive; since the 1980s, a combination of rising tuition and persistent reductions in state/federal funding has transferred the primary financial responsibility of college costs from the government to the family. Low-income families are increasingly reliant on a labyrinthine system of grants (federal, state, and institutional), loans. Compounding this, financial aid offer letters are often confusing, or worse, misleading (some institutions lump aid together, making it hard to differentiate between loans and grants). In my dissertation, I utilize a mixed methods research design. First, I interview 30 families, interpreting how they make sense of their experiences reviewing aid offers via three longitudinal semi-structured interviews. These results inform an experiment, where I administer a survey to over 400 families and use statistical analyses to estimate how known heuristics may predict enrollment probabilities. Understanding how families compare aid offers can reveal more about how and why families choose and pay for a particular college, as well as the social context from which they make decisions. Furthermore, a deeper appreciation of how low-income families interpret aid letters will inform both policymakers and institutions looking to best communicate financial aid offers to low-income students.

2021: Cultivating Latinx Students’ Critical Consciousness and Ethnic-Racial Identity: Ethnic Studies and Educational Achievement

By Andres Pinedo

Project Description

Ethnic Studies enrollment has been linked with positive academic outcomes such as increased attendance, improved GPAs, and greater odds of graduation. Yet, while these outcomes have been documented in previous research, little work has examined the intermediary processes (i.e. mediators) that connect ethnic studies enrollment to desired academic outcomes. That is, what changes within students that explains these gains? Previous research suggests that, ethnic studies improves outcomes by connecting students’ education to important issues in their communities which leads to greater school engagement and relevance. Additionally, many educators who implement ethnic studies argue that a major goal of this type of curriculum is to foster students’ critical consciousness–the critical understanding of, drive to challenge, and action against inequality– and this may also link ethnic studies enrollment to desired outcomes because critical consciousness has been linked to desired academic outcomes in previous research. Thus, in our study, we will examine the impact of ethnic studies on academic outcomes to see if previous links replicate in this sample, and to extend previous scholarship, we will assess whether school engagement and critical consciousness mediate these links. This research will help teachers and administrators understand the efficacy of ethnic studies for improving students outcomes and hopefully help ethnic studies be more widely adopted across the state and country.

2020: Postsecondary Decision Making: The Role of Family, School and Financial Aid Provision

By Elizabeth Burland

Project Description

There are well-documented gaps in both college attendance and completion rates by income and wealth and there is evidence that these gaps have increased over time. Previous research has focused on whether students go to college and where they go to college with a number of successful interventions that increase student enrollment in post-secondary institutions. However, we know less about why these interventions have been successful. This study examines the decision-making process that students engage in after high school, and how differences in decision-making might contribute to the gaps in educational outcomes. We know that geographic, school, peer, and home contexts are factors in the decision to attend college, but more research is needed to understand how these influence the process of student decision-making. Using a semi-structured interview methodology, this study investigates three research questions. (1) How do students make decisions about what to pursue after high school, and what resources do they use? (2) How do school, family, and geographic contexts shape these decisions? (3) How do interventions like the HAIL scholarship and other financial aid interventions influence student decisions and how does this vary by geographic and school context? 


2019: I’m Just Not a “Math Person”: Categorically Different Identities and their Development by Race and Gender

By Elizabeth Bruch and Anne Clark

Project Description

Among scholars who examine how math interest and self-competence evolve with age, there is disagreement as to whether the gender gap grows or shrinks with age. Furthermore, there is no research on whether gaps between white students and underrepresented minorities grow or shrink with age. Understanding the process whereby young people begin or cease to identify themselves as math people is crucial to diminishing the gender gap in pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors. Do girls start with stronger math identities and get discouraged, or develop greater self-competence after a proven record of strong performance? Furthermore, it is clear that this process differs for white girls and minority girls. Black girls especially receive more encouragement in STEM at home while experiencing greater racial bias in school compared to white girls.

Uncovering the most common pathways whereby girls’ math identities evolve is important for identifying the most effective developmental stages for interventions increasing girls’ interest and self-competence in math. Furthermore, an intersectional analysis allows us to target strategies more effectively, for example, based on school or neighborhood racial composition. Therefore, the first goal of this study is to use a nationally representative data set to describe common trajectories of identity development in elementary and middle school and race and gender differences in the likelihood of taking any given pathway. The second goal of this study is to identify predictors of race and gender differences in pathways of identity development.


2018: The Effect of Classroom Demographic Composition on Inequalities in Math Identity and Performance

By Elizabeth Bruch and Anne Clark

Project Description

Educational equity consists of not only equality in resources and opportunities, but also equality in the range of future selves that children have the freedom to imagine and become in terms of ambition, self-confidence, and interests. This has not only moral but also financial implications. For college to be transformative for life chances, not only must we reduce selection into college attendance. Students also need to have equal access to majors that yield the highest economic dividends, which tend to require a strong math background (Kim, Tamborini, and Sakamoto 2015). And yet, women are less likely to choose those majors and underrepresented minorities, despite high interest, are less likely to be prepared for and therefore persist in them (Riegle-Crumb and King 2010; Xie, Fang, and Shauman 2015). Given the strong correlation between race and socioeconomic status (Condron 2009), this race gap in major perpetuates socioeconomic gaps in education and earnings.

Interventions seeking to prevent disparities in postsecondary majors should focus on elementary and middle school, as high school may be too late to make significant impacts. First, tracking of students into ability-differentiated math classes begins in middle school as a function of both preferences and academic performance (Catsambis 1994; Gamoran 1992). This tracking is highly stable (Hallinan 1996) and has implications for college attendance and major selection, as many high schools allow students to move out of but not into college preparatory tracks (Domina, Penner, and Penner 2017). Second, children begin developing career aspirations and expectations as early as elementary school. Their perceptions of their ability and its implications for their future prospects then become increasingly calcified in high school (Hartung, Porfeli, and Vondracek 2005). However, current research is limited in its ability to inform the co-evolution of inequalities in math performance and disparities in math identity (i.e., enjoyment of and self- confidence in math) because these two strands of educational equity are generally studied separately at the elementary and secondary school level. Research on racial inequalities in education tends to focus on performance and attainment gaps between Whites and Asians on one hand and underrepresented minorities on the other due to income inequality and segregation into different public schools (with racial disparities in educational aspirations treated as symptomatic of these structural inequalities) (Condron 2009; Domina, Penner, and Penner 2017). With the closing of the gender gap in test scores in elementary and secondary schools, gender scholarship increasingly focuses on the persistent gap in the desire to pursue math-based careers stemming from cultural messaging that math is masculine (Riegle-Crumb and Morton 2017; Xie, Fang, and Shauman 2015).

Studying the race gap in test scores and degree attainment separately from the gender gap in attitudes towards subjects like math leaves inconsistencies unexamined. Generally, researchers have found that performance, interest, and self-confidence in school subjects are highly correlated, and yet a growing body of evidence shows that this correlation is weaker for girls and underrepresented minorities (Denissen, Zarrett, and Eccles 2007). Notably, minority students are more likely to maintain positive math identities (i.e., to like math and feel confident in their math abilities) despite low test scores (Riegle-Crumb, Moore, and Ramos-Wada 2011). Uncovering why may be key to both developing strategies to improve girls’ math identities and determining which unique strengths in minority students can be leveraged to improve their math performance.

Social psychological research on stereotype threat and impostor syndrome has provided some clues as to the underlying processes simultaneously affecting math performance and identity. According to work on stereotype threat, the existence of negative stereotypes for one’s racial or gender group lowers both self-perceived and actual performance through both fear of conforming to the stereotype and demotivation due to devaluation by peers and mentors (von Hippel, Sekaquaptewa, and McFarlane 2015). Over time, this leads to disidentification with the field. In contrast, the imposter syndrome literature focuses on situations in which women and minorities disidentify with the field and may have low self-perceived performance, but do not actually underperform compared to white men (Dasgupta 2011). Individuals from underrepresented groups feel they do not belong based on the demographic composition of the field and lose confidence. Even if their performance is not affected, their self-doubt compels them to switch to a field in which they feel more comfortable and have more confidence. While one theory relies more heavily on negative stereotypes and the other on underrepresentation to trigger effects on identity and/or performance, many fields in which women and minorities are underrepresented also contain negative stereotypes about them. Many negative stereotypes about women and minorities’ competence and competencies are also not field-specific (e.g., that white people are more intellectual than black individuals, that women are more emotional and less analytical than men). Therefore, it is unclear when someone may experience negative effects on identity but not performance (imposter syndrome) and when an individual may suffer negative impacts on both identity and performance (stereotype threat). Furthermore, neither theory can inform why individuals may be able to maintain positive identity despite poor performance.

2017: Did I 'work hard' or 'get lucky'? First-Generation Students' Understanding of their Success

By Sonya Dal Cin and Neil Lewis, Jr.

Project Description

Five percent of the students who matriculated to the University of Michigan last fall were the first in their families to ever attend college (UM Student Life, 2016). Despite the hope that these students and their families have for the better life a college education will bring them, the evidence suggests their odds of success are compromised by them simply being the first to make this journey. First generation students are less likely to graduate from college (Horn, 1998; Ishitani, 2006; Nunez & Curraco-Alamin, 1998; Riehl, 1994), and even when they do graduate, they are less likely to do so in a timely manner (Ishitani, 2003, 2006) which results in them accruing more debt along the way than their continuing generation counterparts (Carter, 2016). Why is it more difficult for first-generation students to succeed in college? Prior research has documented several structural factors that contribute to generational disparities in college achievement. Compared to continuing-generation students, first-generation students: (a) are more likely to have attended under-resourced high schools (and as a result, to have often received worse high school preparation; Braxton, Duster, & Pascarella, 1988), (b) have greater difficulty navigating university institution bureaucracies such as financial aid and course registration (Reeves, Murphy, D’Mello, & Yeager, 2016), and (c) are more likely to have to work during college in order to fund their education (Hoachlander, Sikora, & Horn, 2003).

In addition to these structural barriers, students’ understanding and interpretation of their college experiences, including their perception of how and why they got into college in the first place, are another potentially important factor explaining the generational achievement gap in college (Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2016). First generation students are less likely than continuing-generation students to feel like they feel like they belong on campus and more likely to experience imposter syndrome (Gardner, & Holley, 2011). Imposter syndrome is characterized by attributing one’s successes to “luck” and other external sources (Brauer & Wolf, 2016), and is associated with adverse outcomes such as experiencing persistent fears of being exposed as a “fraud” (Gardner, & Holley, 2011). This diminished sense of belonging is associated with increased depression (Hagerty & Williams, 1999) and decreased academic persistence (Lewis, Sekaquaptewa, & Meadows, 2017). What remains unclear is the timeline of when these feelings emerge. Does imposter syndrome develop only after being on campus, or might first-generation students doubt their abilities before they even arrive? Identifying the origins of first-generation students’ imposter syndrome is important for identifying points for intervention. If these feelings emerge before college, then interventions designed to reduce imposter syndrome and improve outcomes for first generation students should occur before they arrive on campus (e.g. Yeager et al., in press). However, if these feelings emerge after students arrive on campus, then different strategies should be adopted (e.g. Walton & Cohen, 2011).


The Sarri Family Fellowship will allow me to hire a research coordinator to handle logistics like data management and participant compensation which will give me more time to focus on the most important aspects of the study like methodological design and data analysis. This research will ultimately serve as crucial data for my dissertation which will aid in my pursuit of a PhD. Ultimately, I am just extremely thankful to be granted this opportunity to conduct important research that speaks to important social issues.

Anres Pinedo

2021 recipient of the Sarri Family Fellowship

My research project aims to understand how high school seniors make decisions about what to pursue after they complete high school. I’m using a particular population of low-income, high achieving students in the state of Michigan that live all across the state, in cities, small towns, and rural areas.

I will use the funding this summer to help support my living expenses for the summer so that I can focus on finishing my interviews and spend time effectively writing up my results. This funding will support the timely completion of my dissertation, will result in at least one academic publication which is necessary for opening career opportunities, and will help launch me into a career speaking to both sociological knowledge as well as real policy change. I am very grateful for this opportunity.

Elizabeth Burland

2020 recipient of the Sarri Family Fellowship


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