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Getting more high-achieving low-income students into selective colleges

States that require (and pay for) all high schoolers to take SAT or ACT during school-day see increased college enrollment rates

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Higher Ed Watch

When I was in high school, there was one thing I desperately didn’t want to do: take the SAT. Who in his right mind wants to spend up to four hours on a weekend taking an exam that seemingly determines the course of one’s life?

Luckily, I had extremely pushy parents who probably would have disowned me if I had skipped out on the test.

Unfortunately, many high-achieving low-income students—who are often the first in their families to consider going to college—don’t have anybody to push them to do something they really don’t want to do. As a result, a large number of these college-qualified students don’t end up taking a college entrance exam.

Related: Leveling the playing field for low-income students

They may not want to take the exam because they don’t think they’re “college material,” or because they don’t think they will be able to afford to go to school (and with good reason, as hundreds of four-year colleges require the lowest-income students to pay an amount equal to or greater than half of their families’ yearly earnings). They may have trouble getting time off from work on the test day, which is usually a Saturday. Or they may not have the means or desire to travel to an unfamiliar high school that is giving the test.

Regardless of the reason, these students are putting themselves at a great disadvantage because most selective colleges won’t consider admitting applicants who haven’t taken an entrance exam.

Fortunately, there is something that state policymakers can do to alleviate the problem: require all students in the state to take the exam at their own schools during the school week. Seem far-fetched? Well, at least 11 states are already doing it, and a slew of recent studies show that these policies have resulted in increased four-year college enrollment in these states.

Related: The real reason that colleges go ‘test-optional’

Researchers at the College Board, for example, found that there was a four to six percent increase in the proportion of public high school seniors in Maine enrolling in four-year colleges after the state started requiring students to take the SAT in their junior year. Digging further into the data, these researchers estimated that there was “a 10 percentage point increase” in the four-year college enrollment rate of students they determined wouldn’t have otherwise taken the SAT. “This increase,” the researchers wrote, “appears to be driven mainly by students hailing from high schools in small towns and rural areas of Maine, rather than students living in suburban areas or in Maine’s small cities.”

Similarly, Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, found that the four-year college enrollment rates of low-income students in Michigan have shot up by six percent in the state, which started requiring all of its high school juniors to take the ACT in 2007.

The reasons for these enrollment increases are not a mystery. “Mandatory college entrance exams provide a substantial change to the structure of the four-year college application process that reduces the monetary, psychic, and time cost of applying to college,” Hyman wrote. “While spending $30 to $50 and five hours on a Saturday represents a small share of the overall cost of applying to and attending college, these monetary and time costs can represent a real hurdle to low-income students, particularly if taking the test requires seeking time off from employment. Further, approximately half of public school students do not attend a high school with a test center in the school, so they would have to find and travel to the nearest test center. Offering the exam for free during school all but eliminates these costs to the student.”

Related: Grinnell shows what it takes for an elite private college to be socioeconomically diverse

These policies have other benefits, too. Sarena Goodman, an economist in the division of research and statistics for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, has found that many low-income students don’t bother to take these tests because they don’t think they can score high enough to be admitted to a competitive college. Students who are required to take the tests are then often pleasantly surprised by the results, leading them to apply to four-year schools that they never would have considered otherwise.

“In sum, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that students are systematically under-predicting their suitability for selective schools,” Goodman wrote in 2013.

In a paper he wrote in 2013 as a doctoral student at Stanford University, Daniel Klasik, an assistant professor of higher education administration at George Washington University, points out another perk of these plans: Low-income students who score well on the exams are more likely to receive solicitations from competitive schools. “Many schools, and in particular private, selective (ACT-requiring), four-year schools, purchase lists of student names and contact information based on certain student characteristics and test scores,” he wrote. “Students who take the ACT are therefore much more likely to receive promotional mail and be the targets of direct recruiting efforts from these schools.”

“Thus, it may not just be that students gain more information about themselves from the ACT, or that ACT testing requirements remove the one barrier that had prevented students from enrolling in ACT requiring schools. Rather, taking the ACT does both of these things, but also opens up a new conduit for students to receive information about their college options and the college enrollment process.”

Related: One struggling city’s bold effort to increase its number of college graduates

Still, as Hyman notes, making college entrance exams mandatory is not “a cure-all.” In his study of Michigan students, he found that the mandatory ACT policy increased “the supply of poor students scoring at a college-ready level on the exam by nearly 50%.” Yet, only an additional six percent of low-income students enrolled in four-year colleges.

“In spite of the policy, there remains a large supply of disadvantaged students who are high-achieving and not on the path to enroll at a four-year college,” Hyman wrote. “Researchers and policy-makers are still faced with the important question of what policies can further stem the tide of rising inequality in educational attainment.”

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Stephen Burd

Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute in Washington, DC.… See Archive

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