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‘Make them Thirsty’: How to Increase Student Opportunity and Access to the Fee Waiver Program

Image of Eric Fox, a principal from Oklahoma and guest blogger for ACT
By Eric Fox, Associate Principal, Jenks High School (Oklahoma)

You’ve heard the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” It is often used to justify the struggles of encouraging follow through that can be beneficial to certain parties. In terms of the ACT, here is a dilemma: How can I as a school leader encourage students to use a fee waiver for the ACT in a way that communicates its value?

Most of us realize that fee waivers are available to our students, but we may not be aware of all the benefits that can be leveraged, including access to free online test prep materials, and perhaps more importantly, additional score reports sent to colleges and universities. Many students limit sending score reports because of costs associated with exploring multiple higher education options, particularly those who rely upon financial aid packages that play an important role in their final decision.

A recent study has demonstrated the positive outcome of those who can benefit from fee waivers.

“ACT’s fee waiver program appears to be reaching its targeted students. Those high school students who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education—e.g., students from low-income households and those who would be first-generation college students—were more likely than their peers to use a fee waiver to register for the test.”


This is encouraging news as we look to more effectively prepare our students for those first steps off the commencement stage. Independent research has also found expanding access to the ACT increases students’ access to and opportunities within higher education.

Whether our students are using the scores for college entrance or scholarship searches, or they are using the career-related information from the reports, many schools, districts, and states are seeing benefits in helping students leave high school as what some have called “college and career ready.” I prefer the term “life ready” as we know there are many skills that are requisite for success in adulthood that are not specifically measured in a score report but are demonstrated by showing up at the right time with the right tools needed to take the assessment.

A concern in this regard is demonstrated in the larger number of students who are provided with fee waivers who do not show up on their assigned test day. In In Their Own Words, students identified various reasons from not having all their materials, not having transportation to a testing center, something unexpected interfering on test day, or even not feeling adequately prepared and/or having test anxiety. What can we do to assist with those students and to also encourage more students to take that drink when led to water? Former Freedom Writer and current educational speaker and expert, Manny Scott, pointed out that although we can’t make the horse drink, “we can make him thirsty.” As administrators and educators, how do we make our students thirsty for the fee waiver and the opportunity to test?

First, let’s examine the expectations we have for our students. Are there varying sets of expectations for students in AP/IB classes, English learners, students on IEPs or 504s or students in “on-level” courses? We may not explicitly state it in our mission statements on our walls, but do separate expectations creep into our conversations in the guidance offices, administrators’ offices or teachers’ lounges? This mindset can result in the Golem Effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy when educators hold low expectations toward students where those low expectations lead to decreased performance levels. If we communicate that some of our students are “college material” while others are relegated to “the workforce” as if those are reflective of academic or intellectual capacity or talent levels, we will see students who believe taking academic assessments aren’t worth their investment of time or money or won’t be efficacious.

Secondly, let’s examine who is involved in the effort to encourage and prepare students. Who can help make them thirsty? Besides your counselors, who is involved in engaging students in conversations about their future plans? The Wallace Foundation released an important study on the role of the assistant principal which stated, “Assistant principals are uniquely positioned to promote equitable outcomes for students … Many assistant principals work closely with students, teachers, and families and thus play a direct role in improving students’ academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes.” When an assistant principal has a conversation with a student, how often are future plans discussed? How often do we direct students to accessible resources? When an assistant principal calls a parent, how often do we ask what parents’ goals or dreams are for their children?

Besides administrators, how are teachers involved in helping provide information and encouragement? Does your staff know when a national test date is coming up? For example, could math teachers take a moment in class to talk about (and possibly demonstrate) the approved calculators students can use on the ACT a month or week before a testing date? If you make verbal announcements over the intercom, can you give a shout out or an encouraging word the Monday or Friday before a test date? Can you promote it on your social media?

The months of July and September are the months when more students take the test without using a fee waiver. Is it possibly because they don’t have access to staff who can assist with it? If so, maybe incoming juniors and seniors could be given a summer “to-do” list, which could include looking up national test dates, fee waiver requirements and protocols for securing one. This could go out in May prior to the end of a school year as well as be included in August back-to-school information provided to students and families. Our school has started hosting summer college information workshops in the media center where staff discuss needs such as the FAFSA, the Common Application, and entrance exam information. You may need to provide materials and information translated into the home languages of your community as well.

All of these efforts come down to students. When I surveyed some of our first-generation college-going students and asked about their use of fee waivers and access to the test, I got responses ranging from, “I didn’t think I would do well, so I didn’t sign up” to “I didn’t like my first score so I took it a couple more times.” One student used the fee waiver and was awarded a national scholarship that truly changed the trajectory of her life and that of her family. She came to our school after spending time in a refugee camp. She came to the U.S. with just her father after she lost her mother to a medical condition for which there was no treatment in her home village. She will be going to a four-year university to study medicine and is determined that a lack of medical expertise in a village should not be the cause of death in her home country. This student was thirsty and her determination and sense of purpose makes me thirsty as well. There may be a monetary value on the scholarship, but what is the real value added to the world because of this opportunity? I’m excited to work with my team next year to find more students just like her and I encourage you and your team to do the same.

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