Requiring College Exams Boosts Enrollment

Requiring College Exams Boosts Enrollment 

New research suggests a way to reverse some of the impact of the enrollment drop higher ed has experienced for the last five years: Require and pay for all public high school students to take a college entrance exam. The study found that for every 10 "poor students" who scored "college-ready" on the ACT or SAT exams, there were an additional five poor students who would score college ready but never took either test.

This isn't simply theoretical. Such requirements are already in place in 11 states. In those states, wrote author Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, the students "induced by the policy" to attend college persist at about the same rate as their peers. And, he calculated, at less than $50 per student for states to implement the policy, it's "more cost-effective than traditional student aid at boosting postsecondary attainment."

In "ACT for All: The Effect of Mandatory College Entrance Exams on Postsecondary Attainment and Choice," published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, Hyman also suggested that policies inducing low-income students "to attend and persist at appropriately selective institutions could have substantial implications for reducing educational inequality."

Hyman's analysis focused on a dataset that had six complete cohorts of 11th graders in Michigan, a state that put its mandatory ACT policy in place in 2007, enabling him to study the before and after effects.

The mandatory testing differs from the optional test-taking in several ways, the author pointed out. Traditionally, the ACT and SAT are offered on Saturday mornings, cost students about $30 to $50 and require them to travel to a testing center, which may or may not be in their community, putting students with fewer resources at a disadvantage. While fee waivers are available for low-income students, "take-up is low," he stated, "perhaps because it requires paperwork on the part of the student and coordination with high school counselors." When the tests are mandated, however, they're usually given during the school day; there is no cost for the student; and the student doesn't have to get to a testing center other than his or her own school.

While taking the exam is just part of the process of applying to college, there are other aspects that encourage students to think beyond high school, Hyman pointed out. For example, in Michigan, most schools have some resources available to help students prepare for the tests, including entire classes devoted to the exam preparation. That sort of resource generates a "college-going culture" at schools, which, he added, "has been shown to be an important instrument in increasing the postsecondary attainment of disadvantaged students."

When the researcher compared changes in college-going rates pre- and post-policy, he found an increase of two percent in four-year enrollment. The effect was larger among boys (0.9 percentage points), poor students (1.0 point), students in the poorest high schools (1.3 points) and students less likely to take a college entrance exam in the absence of the policy (1.3 points). Although the increases may come across as small, Hyman emphasized, "relative to other educational interventions this policy is inexpensive and currently being implemented on a large scale."

The complete report is openly available on MIT Press Journals website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.