UConn Study: When State Pays for ACT Exam, More Poor Youth Reach College

New research finds a simple strategy can modestly boost the share of students with limited financial resources who go on to college: requiring, and paying for, all students to take the ACT or SAT.  A University of Connecticut researcher examined the effects of requiring and paying for all public high school students to take a college entrance exam – which 11 states have done since 2001- and found that while the impact isn’t enormous, the policy is relatively inexpensive, and does move the needle on college enrollment. At just $34 per student, increases in four-year college attendance reach about 1 percentage point for low-income students, the higher education website Chalkbeat reports.  Ohio was the latest state to require all members of the junior class to take the exam, as of this past spring.

“Although these increases in the four-year college enrollment rate might not appear to be dramatically large, relative to other educational interventions this policy is inexpensive and currently being implemented on a large scale,” writes Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

Hyman cautions, however, that paying for every student, regardless of income, to take the exam only goes so far.

“The results suggest that requiring all students to take a college entrance exam increases the supply of poor students scoring at a college-ready level by nearly 50 percent. Yet the policy increases the number of poor students enrolling at a four-year institution by only 6 percent. In spite of the policy, there remains a large supply of disadvantaged students who are high achieving and not on the path to enrolling at a four-year college.”

The research and 30-page journal entry “validates recent efforts … to expand access to these tests,” Chalkbeat points out, “which are required to enroll at most colleges and universities.”   In order of adoption, according to the paper, the states are Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Delaware, North Carolina, Louisiana, Wyoming, and Alabama.

In Connecticut, April 5, 2017, was the Connecticut SAT School Day administration.  SAT scores are used by the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) for school and district accountability purposes, state Education Commissioner Diana Wentzell explained in a letter to parents earlier this year.

The research, published this summer in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, examined Michigan’s policy to require — and, importantly, pay for — high school juniors to take the ACT. Unsurprisingly, the number of students taking the exam jumped from 56 percent statewide to 91 percent after the policy was implemented in 2007. College attendance in the state then increased by nearly 2 percentage points (though the study can’t show how much of the increase was because of the mandatory ACT).

“The mandatory college entrance exam policy is more cost-effective than traditional [college financial] aid at boosting postsecondary attainment,” the study states.

Hyman found that, prior to the policy, a substantial number of Michigan’s low-income students didn’t take the ACT even though they would have scored at or above the standard for college readiness. That might been due to financial or logistical barriers, like the cost of the test (between $30 and $50) or difficulties traveling to an exam center on a Saturday. (Both the SAT and ACT offer fee waivers to low-income students, but the study notes that the waivers are underused.)

“I show that for every ten poor students taking a college entrance exam and scoring college-ready, there are an additional five poor students who do not take the test but who would score college-ready if they did,” Hyman explains.  “In spite of the policy, there remains a large supply of disadvantaged students who are high-achieving and not on the path to enrolling at a four-year college.”

Hyman, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, has a joint appointment in the Department of Economics and Neag School of Education. His research focuses broadly on labor economics, public finance, and the economics of education. As for the interest in Michigan, Hyman earned a Ph.D. in Economics and Public Policy from the University of Michigan in 2013.