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Using Research to Boost the Fee Waiver Program and Buck the No-Show Trend

Do you know how many students from your school use fee waivers to take the ACT test each year? Across the country, more than one in five registrations for the national ACT test (taken by students on a Saturday) are completed using a fee waiver. On average, more than $32 million worth of fee waivers are distributed each year. This effort is a key part of ACT’s nonprofit mission to help everyone find success in education and the workforce. Sadly, many students ultimately do not test after using a fee waiver to register for the ACT, missing out on additional college opportunities including scholarship dollars.

As members of ACT’s Research and Policy departments, we investigated this unhappy phenomenon further because we believe that measurement matters. We wanted to better understand why students register with a fee waiver and then fail to show up for the test. Our goal is to enhance the fee waiver program and ultimately improve outcomes for those students most in need. To do so, we examined national ACT test registrations over a five-year period, from the 2014-15 to 2018-19 school years. During this period, more than 2.3 million eligible students used fee waivers to register for more than 3.1 million ACT tests, for a total of $161.4 million in waived registration fees.

While we encourage those interested to check out the full four-report series, additional key findings appear below. It is important to note that these findings represent the pre-COVID experience; though we have been working hard to offer as many students as possible the opportunity to test safely in these uncertain times, we know that the student experience over the past year has been atypical, to say the least. We also know that many students from underserved communities have felt COVID-19’s outsized effect on their learning as they potentially juggle challenges such as food insecurity, family responsibilities, and loss of family income.

What we found


The students we must reach—those from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in higher education—are registering for the ACT using a fee waiver. Specifically, more than half of students who identify as Black or Hispanic, whose parents did not attend college, or whose parents earn under $36,000 per year registered for the ACT using a fee waiver during the years studied.

However, students who registered using a fee waiver too often did not test as scheduled. The absentee rate on test day among students whose registrations were completed with a fee waiver (27.4%) was well over twice as high as the absentee rate among students whose registration fee was paid (11.2%).


This is distressing because, of all test-day absentees who had registered with a fee waiver, a little more than half never tested during the three-year time frame surrounding their test day absence. To compare, only a quarter of absentees who paid the registration fee did not test within the three-year period.

Taking the ACT is important for students as they begin to navigate their paths in life. More selective colleges, whose students often have better outcomes, frequently require standardized test scores for admission and/or scholarships. The ACT is also used to identify if students might need extra help in coursework, or if they can skip ahead to a more advanced class. So, the low attendance rates for students registering for the ACT using a fee waiver, and particularly the high number of students who register yet never test at all, is a hurdle we must overcome. This work is necessary for ACT to truly contribute to an equitable educational system and is essential to ACT’s mission to help people achieve education and workplace success.

In addition to our analysis of registration records, we surveyed students who registered for the October 2019 national ACT test using a fee waiver but did not test as scheduled: almost 90 percent said that an ACT score was “extremely” or “very” important to their future goals, and 95 percent said that the fee waiver was “extremely” or “very” important in making it financially possible to register for the test.


Insights from students and our recommendations, including offering State and District ACT testing, will be explained further in future blogs that cover the four-report series in more depth.

Stay tuned for our next blog post, which will address what we found when we asked students themselves why they were unable to test as scheduled after registering for the ACT using a fee waiver.

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