A college education often opens doors to a more prosperous and satisfying career. Yet, the members of society who would benefit most from expanded economic opportunities are often the same ones who find higher education so difficult to access. We have more kids going to college than ever before, but a student in the top quartile of income is almost three times as likely to attend college than one in the lowest quartile and six times more likely to graduate, according to National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth 1979 and 1997.
Getting teens to college–and helping them persist through to graduation–entails far more than anyone probably understands, but examining and improving even the smallest factors might exert an outsized influence on outcomes. For example, one might improve access to college for lower income students by improving access to college admissions tests. Researcher Susan Dynarski analyzed many of the obstacles and opportunities around this issue in a comprehensive New York Times article, How Universal College Admission Tests Help Low-Income Students. Her analysis and my own observations over decades working with high schools and college bound students support some sensible interventions:
Both ACT and College Board offer test fee waivers for low-income students, but, according to Dynarski, they are underused: “Over half of students nationwide are eligible for subsidized school meals, which would also qualify them for an SAT fee waiver. Yet just 10 percent of students who took the SAT in 2017 used a waiver.” Facilitating free testing eliminates one barrier to entry for many students.
One way to make free testing easier is to offer the SAT and/or ACT in school during normal school hours. Such a move not only eliminates the logistical hurdles many low-income families struggle with to get teens to weekend tests at remote locations, but in-school testing moves those who would opt-out for the wrong reasons into the potential pool of college-bound high school graduates. For example, in-school SAT testing in Michigan worked wonders: “…the share of high school graduates taking a college entrance exam rose immediately to nearly 99 percent from 54 percent. That growth was even sharper among low-income students; only 35 percent had been taking the test.” As someone who administers a lot of free practice tests, I can attest that cost is not the only factor that keeps students away.
Guidance and college counselors, whether they like it or not, set the tone for college aspirations at high schools. They also oversee much of the paperwork or at least planning regarding test registration, accommodations, and fee waivers. Yet, many counselors in urban and rural communities alike abdicate positive leadership in these areas, emphasizing vocational instruction over higher education and feeding into their communities’ lower expectations. Without trying to make their tough jobs even tougher, counselors serving lower-income students may need to act more aggressively to move their charges forward on the road to college.
Taking the SAT or ACT serves as just a single step in a long journey of applying to, attending, and graduating college. But even a single, positive step creates the possibility of momentum. The twin admissions tests serve as great equalizers by testing all students the same way, no matter where they live or how much money their families make. One test can be all it takes to turn doubt into determination, to open a teen’s eyes to a richer, more fulfilling future. Expanding access to admissions testing really means expanding access to broader opportunities.
Graphic comes from GAINS AND GAPS: CHANGING INEQUALITY IN U.S. COLLEGE ENTRY ANDCOMPLETION by Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski