Qwaunzee Jones had to drive 40 minutes on a Saturday morning to take the SAT exam as a high schooler in 2010.
Now, as an admissions counselor at Georgia Highlands College, he helps high school students navigate the college admissions process and said traveling can be stressful for students who have to navigate a new place to take a high-stakes exam.
“Some people are not good test takers,” Jones said. “They may have anxiety, but having access to it within their own school takes away a good bit of that anxiety, because they’re in their comfortable environment.”
Some low-income and rural high school students in Georgia face challenges related to cost and distance when it comes to taking the SAT or the ACT exams to get into college.
It currently costs $60 to take the ACT, or $85 with the essay portion, and the SAT costs $55. Some students have to travel to a different school district to take the exam at one of the national testing locations.
Rep. Al Williams sponsored a proposal that failed in the Georgia Legislature that would have given school districts state funding to administer college entrance exams during school hours. Students in 11th grade would have been able to take the exams for free up to three times if they chose to participate, but the bill failed to move in the Senate.
Williams said he pushed for increased access so that cost and transportation are not as big of a barrier for low income and rural students.
“Transportation is an issue, especially in rural Georgia,” said Williams, a Democrat from Midway.
Some limited, no-cost, in-school options are available in some places.
Both the ACT and the SAT are administered by nonprofit organizations that provide the option for individual school districts to administer the exam during school hours at the district’s expense. Both organizations also offer testing fee waivers for students who qualify for various need-based benefit programs, including the National School Lunch Program.
Debra Reed, a guidance counselor at Liberty County High School, said access to testing has improved since her district began offering the exam during school hours through the nonprofits.
“For the students who do not have access, testing for the school in the school day has worked tremendously,” Reed said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the entrance exams were optional for admission into many schools across the U.S. because many test dates had been canceled.
The University System of Georgia has historically required at least one test score for admission. The system recently announced it would temporarily suspend the requirement for most state schools, excluding the most competitive: Georgia College and State University, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Limited testing capacity disproportionately impacts low-income and nonwhite students, according to a 2020 report from the National Association of College Admission Counseling.
The report, written by the NACAC’s task force, said that offering free testing helps students but transfers the cost to taxpayers and uses “scarce public dollars at a time when spending on public goods, including education, has stagnated.”
But by having access to the exam and taking the SAT or the ACT multiple times, students can make their college applications more competitive, according to a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Minority students are significantly less likely to retake the entrance exam than white students, in part due to income gaps, according to the study.
Jones, who helps students through the college admissions process, said students who can’t afford to take the exam more than once are at a disadvantage compared with peers who can retake the test until they get a better score.
“There are a lot of students who aren’t as financially stable as a lot of other students, but they are just as smart, if not smarter,” Jones said.