Alleviating Administrative Burdens for Low-Income Students: ACT Exam Access and Postsecondary Education Engagement
OCTOBER 26, 2021 | 9:50-10:20
Dr. Evan Rhinesmith, Dr. J. Cameron Anglum, Emily Cupito
An extensive literature documents the effects of “low-touch” interventions which seek to remove barriers to higher educational access. We examine the introduction and withdrawal of one such intervention to reduce the administrative burdens characteristic of postsecondary entrance exams. From 2015 to 2017, Missouri availed the ACT postsecondary entrance exam free of charge to high school juniors statewide during the course of the normal school day. Previously, low-income students were able to pursue fee waivers to complete the exam free of charge on Saturdays. We leverage variation in the adoption of similar school-district-specific policies both prior to and following the period of the statewide policy to estimate the effects of the program on test-taking, FAFSA completion, and two- and four-year postsecondary enrollment, with an emphasis on effects experienced by low-income students.
Over the pre-policy, policy, and post-policy time periods, we observe significant changes both to test-taking activity and to average district test scores. In preliminary analyses, we find that among its high school graduates, ACT test-taking increased by nearly 50% over the course of the funding policy. Upon the withdrawal of state funding, conversely, participation rates declined sharply, though not to pre-policy levels. These differences were most pronounced among districts serving the largest shares of low-income students. While the funding policy was in place, district average ACT scores declined over 8% and then, similar to participation rates, increased after the expiration of statewide funding.
Amid an increasingly fluid policy landscape debating the future of higher education entrance exams, we believe the findings of this study entail direct relevance for states like Missouri seeking to expand higher education access, particularly among low-income and racial minority student populations.