SAT Changes: Rippling Effects of Opportunity

Issue Date: 
March 28, 2016

In 2007, College Board—the nonprofit corporation that administers the SAT—instituted a new score-sending policy aimed at increasing college applications and improving college matches for low-income students. The new policy permits low-income SAT test takers to request that the College Board send their scores, without charge, to eight colleges and universities—up from just four schools previously. In addition, the reports can be used at any time during the test taker’s high school career. The ability to forward additional reports to college admissions offices produces significant ripple effects for thousands of low-income students, says a recent analysis by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Harvard University, and the College Board.

“SAT score sending is a subtle but key component of the college application process that is often underappreciated,” said Lindsay C. Page, a lead researcher on the analysis as well as an assistant professor of research methodology in Pitt’s School of Education and a research scientist in the University’s Learning Research and Development Center. “Limited score sending translates into fewer, or fewer successful, college applications. In turn, this decreases the likelihood of prospective students being admitted to a college that represents a sound match for their academic qualifications, which has a profound impact on their chances of postsecondary success.”

The analysis focused on test takers who took the SAT between 2007 and 2009 and then followed their collegiate progress through the 2014-15 academic year. The researchers found that, in the years following the policy change, low-income students were 10 percent more likely to send at least eight score reports to college admissions offices. The likelihood of a student enrolling in college in the fall semester after high school graduation grew by nearly 5 percent. The change also increased the odds of low-income students earning a bachelor’s degree within five years by up to 3 percent. Additionally, the researchers found that the policy change increased the likelihood that a lower-income student with a higher SAT score would generally apply to more selective institutions.

With these findings, the analysis contributes to a growing body of national education literature that shows small interventions in the application process can effectively shift postsecondary outcomes for lower-income students. Collectively, said Page, the analysis’ results prove that small steps add up to postsecondary access and success.

“Given the low cost and subtle nature of the policy change itself, impacts of this magnitude were surprising,” said Page. “Our findings reveal that the less than optimal aspects of the college-selection process for low-income students can be partially remedied with relatively small nudges and tweaks.”

To investigate the policy shift’s outcomes, the researchers focused their analysis on whether the additional score reports increased three factors: the volume of score sending, college attendance, and college completion. 

In the analysis, the term “low-income students,” refers to test takers who were eligible for the College Board’s SAT fee-waiver program. To qualify for the program, test takers or their guardians must have met predefined income guidelines or other special circumstances specified by the National School Lunch Program. The majority of students using SAT fee waivers belonged to traditionally underrepresented communities.

The analysis relied on data held by the College Board, including SAT scores as well as gender and racial demographic information. This information was merged with college attendance records—whether and where students enrolled in college—from the National Student Clearinghouse. 

The analysis is the first and only thorough review of the College Board’s 2007 score-reporting policy shift. The full results and the methodology used for the analysis, titled “Surprising Ripple Effects: How Changing the SAT Score-Sending Policy for Low-Income Students Impacts College Access and Success,” are available for review in Social Science Research Network.