ACT/SAT for all: A cheap, effective way to narrow income gaps in college

An ACT practice test question.

There are many logistical hurdles on the road to college: financial aid forms, admissions essays, letters of recommendation, and entrance exams. There are dozens of details to remember, deadlines to meet, forms to complete, and fees to pay.  Parents who have gone through this themselves, and have the time and resources, can coach their children through this process.  Other kids are largely on their own.

These seemingly minor obstacles put many low-income students off the path to college. A study of high school seniors in Boston found that few low-income youth “decide” against college. Rather, they miss a key deadline, or incorrectly fill out a form, or fail to take a required class, and thereby fall off the path to college.

Consider the ACT and SAT. These entrance exams are required for admission to virtually all selective colleges in the US. Students have to register and pay for these tests, and then travel to a testing center on a weekend to take them. This is straightforward, if you have internet access, a computer, a credit card, and a car. If you are missing any of these resources, it’s a lot more challenging. The nearest testing center may be in a suburb that is unreachable by public transportation early on a Saturday morning.

But, in a dozen states, the ACT or SAT is now given in school, for free, on a school day during school hours. In most cases, the ACT or SAT replaces the standardized test that students would otherwise take in high school, so there is no additional time spent testing. This is an attractive feature, given the widespread backlash against perceived over-testing in schools.  Sitting for the test is also required, which means that students can’t opt out because of low expectations – whether theirs or those of the adults around them.

In Michigan, in 2007, the ACT became part of the test required of juniors in the public schools. As a result of this shift in policy, the share of Michigan’s high school students taking a college entrance exam rose from 54 percent to nearly 99 percent. The growth was even sharper among low-income students, of whom only 35 percent were previously taking the test.

Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor at University of Connecticut, studied the effects of this new policy while he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Hyman analyzed the test scores and college attendance of all public, high school students in Michigan, before and after the ACT was made universal. This research was made possible by an ongoing partnership with the state of Michigan, which was launched with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences.

The results were surprising. Thousands of academically talented students in Michigan had not been taking the ACT (or the SAT, which Hyman also tracked). For every 1,000 students who scored high enough to attend a selective college before testing was universal, another 230 high scorers were revealed by the new policy. Among low-income students, the effect was even more dramatic: for every 1,000 low-income students who had taken the test before 2007 and scored well, another 480 college-ready, low-income students were uncovered by the universal test.

As a result of this policy, more low-income students went to and graduated from four-year colleges.

The story in Michigan is echoed in other states and school districts that have made the ACT or SAT mandatory. In Maine, Illinois, and Colorado, researchers have shown that a universal test uncovers many academically able students.

Something similar happened in Broward County, Florida when the district started screening all of its second graders for its gifted program. While the Broward district is overwhelmingly low-income, black and Hispanic, its gifted program was filled with upper-income, white students when it relied on teacher and parent referrals to fill seats. A universal screening program tripled the share of black and Hispanic children who were identified as gifted.

Many worry that college admissions tests are biased against low-income and non-white students. But the reality is that these tests are the gatekeeper to selective colleges in the US. The evidence indicates that if taking these tests is voluntary, many talented, disadvantaged students will go undetected.

Universal testing alone will not get disadvantaged students into college. But it produces small, discernible increases in college attendance, especially at four-year colleges. And it’s cheap: states have to run a high school test anyway, plus parents pay for the college entrance exams if the school system does not. Professor Hyman calculates that a universal testing program is one of the least costly ways to increase college attendance rates.

Further, a universal test opens the door to more effective, targeted efforts to draw talented, disadvantaged students into college. Most efforts to recruit talented college students rely on the (self-selected) pool of students who are willing and able to take a college-readiness test. Unsurprisingly, this pool is disproportionately white and upper-income. Universal and free testing can help to level the playing field, uncovering disadvantaged students who can benefit from college.

The author did not receive any financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. She is currently not an officer, director, or board member of any organization with an interest in this article.


  • Footnotes
    1. Avery, Christopher, and Thomas. J. Kane. 2004. “Student Perceptions of College Opportunities. The Boston COACH Program.” In College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It, edited by Caroline Hoxby, 355-384. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    2. Some states may prefer to write their own tests in order to align them with state curricula. Michigan chose to supplement the ACT (and now the SAT) with a relatively short set of questions that targeted topics they wanted tested.
    3. Hyman, Joshua. “ACT for all: The effect of mandatory college entrance exams on postsecondary attainment and choice.” Education Finance and Policy 12, no. 3 (2017): 281-311.
    4. In Hyman’s study, a cutoff of 20 on the ACT was used to roughly capture “college readiness,” of which there is no single, accepted measure. Colleges typically do not have a strict score requirement for admissions. The average ACT score nationwide is 21, which corresponds to about a 1060 on the SAT.
    5. Hurwitz, Michael, Jonathan Smith, Sunny Niu, and Jessica Howell. “The Maine question: How is 4-year college enrollment affected by mandatory college entrance exams?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 37, no. 1 (2015): 138-159.
    6. Goodman, Sarena. “Learning from the test: Raising selective college enrollment by providing information.” Review of Economics and Statistics 98, no. 4 (2016): 671-684.
    7. Klasik, Daniel. “The ACT of enrollment: The college enrollment effects of state-required college entrance exam testing.” Educational researcher 42, no. 3 (2013): 151-160.
    8. Card, David, and Laura Giuliano. “Universal screening increases the representation of low-income and minority students in gifted education.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 48 (2016): 13678-13683.