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What Do Counselors Think about the ACT Fee Waiver Program?

First, a recap. What is the fee waiver program?

If a student is having trouble paying for the ACT test, the ACT Fee Waiver Program can help. The program covers the registration fee for up to four ACT tests (on national test days), with or without the optional writing test.

It also provides a year of free access to The Official ACT® Self-Paced Course, powered by Kaplan® (featuring more than 2,000 real ACT practice questions and five full-length official practice tests), and unlimited additional score reports, so students can send their scores to colleges and institutions for free.

Eligible students do not have to pay anything to take the ACT! College and career success are within reach for all.

Who is eligible? How do they get it? How do they use it?

Students are eligible for the program if they meet these three requirements:

  1. Are currently enrolled in high school in the 11th or 12th grade.
  2. Are testing in the United States, US territories, or Puerto Rico.
  3. Meet one or more of the indicators of economic need. See here for details.

A student’s best resource for the fee waiver program is their school counselor. Counselors can determine their eligibility and provide students with the fee waiver codes that they will use to register for the ACT.

Now to the expert commentary

ACT asked school counselors for their reactions to new ACT policy and survey research on the fee waiver program. The research series delves into the use and history of the program, and uncovers several barriers students told us can make it difficult to show up on test day.

Below, Lisa C. Davies, Ed.D., assistant professor and lead faculty for the School Counseling Program in the College of Education at Lipscomb University (Nashville, Tenn.), and Kim Jackson-Allen, Ed.D., professional school counselor, Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (Savannah, Ga.), share their practitioner-perspectives about the benefits and barriers to the program, while offering recommendations for how fellow counselors and fee waiver advocates (including ACT itself) can help more students.

How do your students benefit from the fee waiver program? Which aspects are most important to their success?

“Students greatly benefit from the fee waiver program. Often daily necessities or food insecurities are of first concern; therefore, providing a fee waiver allows the student to know they can participate in activities related to the college going process—not taking away from daily living.”– Davies

“The students at my high school benefit greatly from the ACT fee waiver program. As a professional school counselor who is employed in an underserved geographic location for students, it is important that the students I serve receive the essential benefits from the fee waiver program. In estimation, I would say close to 85 percent of my students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. That being said, it is extremely difficult for students as they access and navigate their way through the college access program to be encumbered with another barrier that limits their access even further. Now, more than ever, it is essential that our students acquire self-awareness to reap the benefits from the fee waiver program. One of the many aspects that is most important to their success is knowing that they can gain access to the post-secondary options that may be limited based on perceived stereotypes of socio-economic status. The ACT program allows the students to push forward in their academic milieu despite their zip code. With ACT offering such benefits to those who qualify, it essentially continues to level the playing field for all students.” – Jackson-Allen

What are some of the barriers students face when it comes to using a fee waiver?

“Barriers to showing up on the test day may vary according to the location and/or personal responsibilities of students. For many, working on a Saturday morning takes precedence over taking the test. For others, a start time of 8:00 am is difficult because of travel time when coming from a rural area.” – Davies

“Research can tell us several things about an infinite number of current and sometimes reoccurring trends. On a day-to-day basis, data collected helps me to inform processes and decisions that I will make regarding advising my students in an impactful way led with fidelity. This recalls the barriers that my students face regarding ACT test day. While not necessarily demonstrated or grounded in ACT research, I have found that many of the barriers that our students face (though they may be intrinsic), are the missed opportunities to follow instructions thoroughly. Often time, this can bring about invalidated test scores, not having any appropriate equipment such as a calculator to help avoid challenging questions on the test, and simple things that are required for admission to the testing center, such as a picture ID. When advising students regarding test preparation, one of my major emphases is to always strongly suggest that they read the directions in their entirety.

Other barriers that students sometimes face are transportation, particularly in underserved areas. This is one of the reasons why my school became a test center. In addition to the students eliminating that barrier to transportation, they were also able to test in an environment that they were accustomed to and felt comfortable in.

There are also other intrinsic barriers that limit the success of students regarding the fee waiver program. For example, things like scheduling conflicts, simply forgetting the test, i.e. not committing the test date to their calendar and oversleeping. The way in which these barriers can be overcome is to continue to appropriately advise students regarding optimal ways to earn a test score, but also calling attention to those intrinsic factors to help improve students' executive functioning skills, which includes but is not limited to critical thinking skills, time management, and organization. These such skills are essential for facilitating behaviors required to plan and achieve goals.” – Jackson-Allen

How do we overcome these barriers and increase access? What is your advice to other counselors and to ACT?

It is necessary to continue to offer the ACT during the school day. Students have transportation, food availability, and access to materials. When school counselors have opportunities to explain scores and academic areas that need to have further remediation, students may connect the importance of retaking the ACT toward the college going experience. When students understand how their scores may propel them during their first year of college, the ACT may have more meaning as to its importance.

Encouraging students to take advantage of the fee waiver program includes early education to students and parents. When ACT tutoring is taking place with students, communication about the fee waiver is essential. I believe communication is the key to students learning about the fee waiver program. Collaborating with teachers to help spread the word or including information through social media about fee waivers during all postsecondary conversations with students is paramount.” – Davies

“There are a few different methods of advice for trying to increase college access and post-secondary opportunities for students as it relates to a fee waiver program. While the words may seem simple, they are grand in the fact that they carry a lot of weight. The word would be exposure, exposure, and more exposure. It is my belief that the more we expose our students to such opportunities, the more our students will not view these opportunities as just a way to leverage their postsecondary options, but at the same time expand their access to such options. ACT has done a commendable job of increasing their fee waiver program and access. Ongoing evaluative methods are a necessity to inform data regarding this effort. At my school, I would strongly recommend the continued solicitation for feedback from practitioners such as professional school counselors in the field. Another recommendation could be soliciting this same feedback from students regarding their personal experiences with the fee waiver program. As a whole, and lastly, the promotion of robust social media campaigns to attract and retain the attention of students.” – Jackson-Allen

What is the program’s reach?

Between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 school years, 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.

In terms of free resources, since launching the self-paced course powered by Kaplan in July 2020, we’ve equipped more than 110,000 students who register with a fee waiver with the resources and tools to help them reach their college and career goals.

What is the future of the program?

COVID-19 (and the educational equity gaps it has exposed and exacerbated) has only strengthened our commitment to the fee waiver program. Over the next few years, ACT will explore new strategies to increase awareness of the fee waiver program, increase timely supports for students participating in the program, and encourage use of the free test prep materials.

In addition, we continue to conduct research and suggest research-based policies and solutions to make it easier for students participating in the fee waiver program to take the test.

Take a deeper dive

Check out our fee waiver research series and corresponding blog posts:

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