STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

College: Stories from the frontline of getting in

When I was applying to college, many, many moons ago, I remembered it being scary, but exciting. All the classes I could take. All the places I could go. All the money it would cost. All the being far, far away from home. 

Here in Michigan, about 60% of Michigan kids go to collegeOnce they get there, about 60% graduate. Several states are doing better than us. Several aren't.Keep in mind these stats get updated every few years. 

I decided to look at the 60% who go to college. I wanted to hear some of the stories of this year's crop of high school seniors as they navigated the monumental decision of where to spend the next few years of their lives. 

This is the first of an occasional series. 

Latifa Al-Mohdar - Ann Arbor

Al-Mohdar is a really smart 17-year-old who will graduate on Monday from Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. She figured she would have lots of choices. As part of a low-income family, she turned to Questbridge, a site that links disadvantaged students to colleges looking for them. 

Her big take-home was this: Private colleges want smart kids, especially low-income ones. And they will bend over backward to get them and help them pay for school. Smith College was one of those schools.

With grants and work-study, she estimates she might be about $12,000 in debt when she graduates. 

"A lot of people are worried about financial aid, and then they miss out on applying to all these schools," she says, paraphrasing advice she was given by a college counselor. 

So, as she tried to whittle down her list of where to apply, her first question was, do they have Arabic or Middle Eastern Studies? She's interested in learning about her heritage in an intellectual setting. 

Surprisingly, she said, a lot of prestigious schools don't. The list got smaller. 

Then, she looked at school size. Skyline is pretty big, so she wanted a smaller college experience. 

Then, she thought about demographics. An all-women's school sounded like the right place for her to flourish. And their alumni networks are usually pretty strong, too. 

So, she applied to places like Scripps College, Kalamazoo College, Smith College and Wellesley. She wasn't afraid to leave Michigan. 

"I don't really mind moving away," she says. "I think it might be good for me to leave my family and be in a vulnerable position, alone." 

After a few nail-biting weeks and a couple of rejections, she found herself choosing between Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Michigan. 

Mt. Holyoke, in South Hadley, Mass., brought her out for a visit. While she was there, she took a side trip to Smith (A bus. A few miles). Smith won.  

"I just got a feeling when I got there that I didn't have at Mt. Holyoke and U-M," she says. And it didn't hurt that Northampton, Massachusetts, felt a lot like Ann Arbor. 

So, while most of her friends will be staying in-state, Latifa will venture out with her family's blessing. And in the meantime, she's looking for a summer job. 

If you, or a student you know is graduating this year and has a good story to tell, email me at 

This story has been edited to reflect a change in Latifa's proposed debt after college.