Free ACT and SAT Exams Drive Up College Enrollment for Poor Students

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Sharpen those No. 2 pencils: States that pick up the cost of college-entrance exams for all students can boost four-year college enrollment among low-income students, new research suggests.

In effect, a mandatory entrance-exam policy helps remove one of the hurdles standing between those students and the track to a college degree.

“The college-application process is complicated, and the only reason a lot of us go through it is because of parents and guidance counselors,” said Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, who conducted the study. “This exam is a gateway to four-year colleges.”

The research would seem to support the steady trend in states toward adopting the tests since the early 2000s, though that progress is uneven; Missouri just announced it would no longer administer the ACT.

About half the states now require all high school students to take the ACT or its main competitor, the College Board’s SAT.

Natural Experiment

For years, researchers have lamented the barriers faced by capable low-income students who nevertheless don’t go to college, or go to less-selective schools than they qualify for, compared with wealthier students.

Entrance exams are one of the more obvious examples of how some of the obstacles can affect students differently. Rich students can drop thousands on private tutors or Princeton Review-type services to boost their scores, while their less-advantaged peers scrounge up fees for the exam and bus fares to testing centers.

The new research, which appears in the summer edition of the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, illuminates the sheer size of the college-mismatch gap. Drawing on records from some 700,000 Michigan high school juniors between 2003-04 and 2007-08, Hyman found that for every 100 needy students who took the ACT in that state, nearly 50 other such students who didn’t take it would have scored at a college-ready level.

Economists tend to favor random-assignment experiments to measure policy impact. Michigan’s statewide ACT policy, begun in 2007, made that impossible, so Hyman used the next best thing: a natural experiment.

He compared the scores of students attending high schools that doubled as ACT testing centers with those attending high schools that didn’t serve as testing centers before and after the policy went into effect. The goal was to look at the impact on students most likely to be affected by the policy.

Overall, the policy increased the probability that students would enroll in college by about 2 percent. But students at schools with higher poverty rates increased their college-enrollment rates by 6 percent, and those students who had a low to middling probability of taking the ACT before the policy took effect saw their rates improve by 5 percent afterward.

The enrollment gains were also concentrated in four-year colleges, not community colleges or two-year programs.

Is It Cost Effective?

Although the study uses Michigan data, there’s reason to believe that the effect could transfer to other states. A 2015 study on a mandatory-SAT policy in Maine using a similar methodology also found higher college-enrollment rates as a result.

Even though the effects of such a policy are fairly modest, it’s an extremely cheap one to put into place.

The ACT typically costs $46 per student, though ACT Inc. discounts that for the states it works with. At a macro level, that’s much less costly than, for example, the $21,000 in student financial aid that on average it costs to induce a student to enroll in college.

The state-level policies are also a boon for business, ACT officials acknowledge, though they stress that the benefit to individual students is incalculable.

“If we impact just a student here, a student there, is that significant enough?” said Paul Weeks, ACT’s senior vice president for client relations. “Well, it is for their families.”

Perhaps, but some researchers suggest mandatory-testing policies could still be improved by means testing, so that they’re better tailored to students who need the assistance, rather than those who’d take the exam anyway.

Some teachers who support equity and access nevertheless worry about the collateral impact of such policies on teaching and learning.

“Are we creating a culture in which testing is paramount?“ said Patrick Sprinkle, a U.S. History and government high school teacher in New York City. “I worry this policy nudges colleges to emphasize testing even when we know the anxiety and stress testing creates for the young people we serve.”

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New York state does not currently require students to take either the SAT or the ACT, but New York City does pick up the cost of the SAT.

Still, parents, teachers, and students often find value in the entrance exams that they don’t in other assessments, noted Venessa Keesler, a deputy superintendent in Michigan’s education department. “They often say, ‘It’s the only part of this assessment thing you make us do that matters,’” she said. “It’s data that’s meaningful for people.”

Hyman agrees that mandatory-exam policies aren’t anything like a silver bullet—just a small piece of the college puzzle dropping into place. Many other college-access barriers remain, such as high remediation rates among low-income students, cultural obstacles once they’re on campus—and, of course, the sticker shock of tuition.

“The policy is only reducing one of the barriers of applying to a four-year college,” he said. “It isn’t making college any cheaper, either.”

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