Flattening Speed Bumps: The Path To Postsecondary Success

​By: Jim Larimore, Chief Officer for the Center for Equity in Learning, guest contributor for the Reach Higher initiative 

Jim Larimore, Chief Officer

A coworker of mine recently had a destitute man approach her car. After he left, her daughter asked, “How do people become homeless?”

Her mother said it usually wasn’t one thing, but a list: Maybe his car broke down. It got towed. He couldn’t pay the fee so his car went into storage. He couldn’t get to work or was late to work. He lost his job. He couldn’t pay his rent. He got evicted.

He ended up on the street.

One slight event—as simple as not seeing a pothole—cascaded into homelessness. In the same way, for students from families with lower incomes, what might seem like a speedbump to some can have devastating educational implications that last a lifetime.

Consider the price of a prestigious private college. When you’re barely making ends meet attending a free public high school, applying to a $60,000-a-year college can seem preposterous. Even sending a test score to the college might seem crazy–why waste your money?

Instead, too many talented students think it’s best to choose what appears to be the postsecondary path of least resistance. Close to home. Low sticker price. Sure to be admitted. Short bus ride away.

That might seem smart. Why squander your money applying to schools that you think are meant for other people, not you?

After nearly 60 years of helping students get to college, at ACT, we know this strategy is real–and often wrong.

Schools with higher sticker prices often have lower net costs. If they have more resources, they can invest more in scholarships and supporting their students. Attend these schools and you are more likely to graduate, often with less debt, and can start earning a salary sooner than if you had taken what initially appeared to be the “safer” route.

In short, the story is complicated and conventional wisdom is not always right. For underserved students without families or mentors to guide them through the maze, what they see first are posh price tags for colleges or universities completely outside the realm of their experience, accompanied by modest-but-mounting application-related fees–all to attend schools they don’t think they can afford.

At ACT, we’re working with partners like Better Make Room, Univision, the American College Application Campaign, and National College Access Network to broaden students’ access to information and support, and move beyond talk to increase their options and make them real.

For decades we’ve offered low-income students the chance to take the ACT test at no charge. With fee waivers, low-income students can take the ACT and send their scores to as many as four colleges–a few “safe” schools, and perhaps a “stretch” college or two.

We recognized that strategy fell short, though, because students who had yet to take the ACT probably didn’t know how they’d do on the test or how their scores might influence which colleges they might want to attend. As students learn more about themselves and their options, their dreams and sense of what might be possible often grow—as they should.

That’s why, starting this year, we’ve made sending scores to colleges free for low-income students, who can now send scores to up to 20 different schools, whenever they’d like—eliminating what had been an additional charge of $13 per school. We want students from all backgrounds to engage with a full range of colleges, universities, scholarship agencies, and postsecondary programs–and if low-income students are worried about the cost of score reports, we want to take that concern off the table.

It’s time for more dreams to become true. At ACT, we are taking steps to make that happen. In addition to ensuring that students are able to take the ACT test and send their scores, we are working with parents to ensure they have the tools to help their students. Our partnership with Univision has resulted in a series of Parent Academies that are empowering Hispanic families. We have partnered with leading education organizations to build and share Steps2College, an interactive online tool that marries resources and tools in a “one-stop-shop” for the college-going process.

These steps will move us forward—but there’s more to be done.

This article began with the story of a man who ran into a streak of bad luck and ended up on the street. We all get that, but what we often fail to appreciate is the opposite sequence of events—the series of small advantages that over time build on each other and move people toward success.

Consider our own life stories.

If we were born in the middle class or higher, chances are as toddlers we had more books in our homes and heard 30 million more words compared to our less-fortunate peers. As students we attended schools with more resources, had more experienced teachers, and had more rigorous classes from which to choose.

Much has been written about microaggressions, the subtle, indirect and often unintentional acts of discrimination against members of marginalized groups.

Less has been written about “microadvantages,” a term that Google doesn’t seem to recognize but that we should coin and claim right here—because there’s a good chance many of us have benefited from them most of our lives. Each day, as our parents read to us, our teachers challenged us, and society put yet another attainable goal in front of us, we incrementally grew in our competence and confidence.

Add up enough microadvantages and eventually they result in us being inside the car as the struggling man approaches us, instead of being on the outside looking in. If all we’ve ever known are people who share our advantages, we probably don’t understand all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways life has been disproportionately good to us—and following up on the question posed by my coworker’s daughter, unduly difficult for others. Microadvantages, second chances, and safety nets are not equally available in our society.

That appreciation is part of our educations, and central to the reason equity is important. The more we study with, work with, and live and laugh with people whose life experiences differ from our own, the more complete each of our educations become.

How do we level the playing field? By getting books into low-income homes, ensuring all schools have the resources they need to deliver rigorous curricula, and filling in as many potholes as we can for every student. That includes eliminating the modest test-related fees that can upend low-income students as they navigate their already challenging paths to postsecondary success.

It’s not one thing, but a list. It’s time to get started, and we have. As challenging as the journey is, we are traveling with others who share our commitment to improving equity in learning.

*This blog was originally published on Forbes.com on January 19, 2018.