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One Simple Trick That Boosts Kids' College Graduation Rates

A new study finds yet another nudge helps more low-income students obtain a bachelor's degree.
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(Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

When the organization that administers the SAT allowed low-income test-takers to send their scores to four additional colleges for free, more of those students went to college and earned bachelor's degrees within five years, a new study has found. The effect wasn't large—just a few percentage points. Still, even those small percentages represent thousands of students. Another benefit: The cost to the organization, a non-profit called the College Board, was low, compared to how much more people earn in a lifetime with a bachelor's degree, experts say.

"We're very enthusiastic about the findings," says Lindsay Page, an education researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who worked on the study. She and her team, including researchers from the College Board and Harvard University, posted a paper about their work online last month. It's now undergoing peer review.

"I feel so frustrated that it's these little things that are stopping kids from going to college."

"I hope the College Board continues with this policy. I'm convinced by this paper that it is helping people," says Erin Dunlop Velez, an economist with the non-profit RTI, International who was not involved in the study. "I would say this is an example of a modest-size effect and really, really small price tag."

The change in policy occurred in the fall of 2007. Before that, every test-taker could send her scores free of charge to four schools, but only before she knew her test score. After 2007, test-takers who qualified for the College Board's SAT fee waiver were able to send their scores free of charge to an additional four colleges or scholarship organizations at any time before they graduated from high school—including after they had learned how they fared on the exam.

After the change, low-income SAT-takers were 10 percent more likely to send their scores to eight or more organizations, Page and her team found. For every additional school they sent their scores to, they were five percent more likely to go to college on time, and three percent more likely to get a bachelor's degree within five years. One recent survey found that, on average, Americans with bachelor's degrees earn $720,000 more over their lifetimes than those who don't complete a four-year degree—and $970,000 more than those with only a high school diploma.

The research team calculated the new change cost the College Board $2.4 million in lost revenue every year between 2007 and 2009. The number is likely higher now because more students qualify for fee waivers, says Michael Hurwitz, a College Board researcher who worked on the study.

How can the ability to send out additional scores help more low-income kids graduate from college? It's hard to prove the reasons quantitatively, but Page and Hurwitz had some ideas based on their data. The ability to send out additional scores can help kids apply to more four-year colleges, which might make it more likely they'll get into a school that's a good fit for them—perhaps a place with more suitable academic programs, or a school that's closer to home, or somewhere with better financial aid offerings—and could, in turn, keep kids from dropping out.

The study fits into an emerging body of research that shows small tweaks and simple programs can boost the rates at which disadvantaged kids make it through university. "I feel so frustrated that it's these little things that are stopping kids from going to college," Velez says. "To not be able to do it because they're confused or because they're misinformed about the process or because they don't have the $50 to send their SAT scores somewhere? It's so sad." But it's a boon, too, because these things are relatively easy to fix.