Based on media coverage of the college admissions process, the “road to college” is often portrayed just as that: a metaphorical road.
The “cars” on this road all move in one direction. For the most part, they travel at the speed limit, rarely hit potholes, never run out of gas — and exit at the intended logical off-ramp: college. Once the students in these cars are safely dropped off, they stay in school for four more years before hitting the road again, this time traveling to entry-level jobs.
But this metaphor is a myth. The reality is much messier, and begs the question, “Who gets to travel in these cars on the road to education and workplace success?”
Diversity, Or History’s Lack Thereof
ACT was founded in 1959. When I look back at photos from our first tests, the images are black and white, but the students are almost all white. That likely reflects the opportunities present during that era — before the civil rights movement, before the desegregation of many schools, and before college education was regarded as an opportunity for everyone rather than a privilege for the few.
Thankfully, those days are behind us. In 2014, America’s public schools became majority minority. In 2018, the number of ACT-tested Hispanic students exceeded 300,000, a huge increase from the 115,000 Hispanic students tested in 2008. There were also significant increases in ACT-tested African American and Asian students, reflecting our nation’s evolving demographics and increasing opportunities.
Still, the road to matriculation can be treacherous. According to ACT’s Condition of College and Career Readiness report, many students who want to attend college don’t enroll. In 2017, 82% of ACT-tested high school graduates wanted to go to college, but only 66% did. If this “aspirations gap” were closed, an additional 320,000 high school graduates would have attended college last year alone. Multiply that number times 10 years, or 60, and it’s clear our nation is leaving a huge amount of talent on the table.
However, the story isn’t over yet. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the six-year college graduation rate for “first-time, full-time undergraduate students” (i.e., those who DO make it to college) is 60%. So, even if you make it to college, there’s a real chance you won’t make it to graduation. We need to rethink the systems that result in those numbers.
In short, the issue isn’t only diversity. It’s also inclusion.
Inclusion: Still Real Work To Do
As I noted, ACT was founded in 1959, about the same time as the interstate highway system. To extend my road metaphor, if the higher education system was a freeway in the 1950s, it’s a toll road today.
By some reports, the typical total cost of a public university education in 1959 was about $1,000, and for private schools, $2,400. Adjust that for 880% inflation, and the cost is still less than $10,000 for a public institution and less than $25,000 for a private. That’s not cheap, but it’s a bargain by today’s prices.
However, think about the students attending those schools at the time. The National Defense Student Loan Program, the first of its kind, wasn’t signed into law until 1958. As a result, in 1959, it’s likely that most colleges and universities were primarily populated with students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, reducing the diversity that could have enriched all students’ educations.
Today, we may be more intentional about being inclusive, but we still have real work to do. At ACT, we offer fee waivers and free score reporting to students from low-income families; unfortunately, too many don’t take us up on that opportunity.
Why? It may be they have trouble getting to Saturday test centers when school buses aren’t running. It may be they don’t think they’ll be able to afford college even if they get admitted, or can’t afford to give up the jobs that already support their families.
Just as eliminating one obstacle generally doesn’t resolve highway gridlock, an isolated intervention often isn’t enough to clear paths to academic success for many of these students. It takes several sequenced, integrated actions before traffic starts flowing again.
The good news is that we have more talent in the United States and around the world now than at any time in history. For the most part, we have a consensus that every student deserves the chance to succeed, and we know that it takes an integrated system — with all of us working in concert — to meet the needs of the infinitely complex students we are privileged to know. How well we work together to clear their paths to success is the extent to which we can characterize ourselves as truly inclusive.