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Breaking Barriers to Higher Ed: How CE Can Improve Accessibility for Low-Income Students

Breaking Barriers to Higher Ed: How CE Can Improve Accessibility for Low-Income Students
Continuing education leaders have the opportunity to support college accessibility, as well as develop a pipeline into their own institution, by offering affordable college-entry test preparation courses to high school students.

In January 2014 the White House published a report, “Promising Models and a Call to Action,” in which leading experts convened to identify the barriers to increasing college opportunity.[1] Test preparation was one of the barriers noted in the report. Continuing education leaders have the opportunity to respond to this issue and position their units as a central resource to improving higher education access for low-income high school students.

Providing services like test preparation provides universities a strategic outreach opportunity while also ensuring all high-caliber students, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to receive quality test preparation often times available only to those who can afford it. Today, for-profit companies charge $400 to $2,000 for test prep instruction. The price is not something many low-middle class families can afford.

Research by economists at the College Board has shown that the trade-off between cost and school quality is often favorable for low-income students, where small increases in cost come with large predicted increases in the likelihood of completion: “Compared to their high-income peers, students from low-income families are sometimes predicted to face a more appealing net price/completion trade-off associated with moving to a college with a higher average SAT score.”[2]

Regardless of income, college-prep programming matters. Research shows that activities such as SAT and ACT preparation, college awareness activities and academic support services are integrated into the core curricula of well-funded schools, and can be entirely missing or only sporadically available for high schools with less financial resources.[3]

Providing quality test prep assistance to high school students not only boosts SAT scores and college applications, but it also leads to increased college attendance and completion. In fact, the Posse Foundation selects disadvantaged, high-achieving students to participate in a “posse.” The Posse model includes many different interventions, and some of its greatest success is reflected the in SAT scores. Posse students have an average SAT score of 1050, and attend colleges with an average SAT score of 1350.[4]

Continuing education divisions are positioned well to respond to the White House’s call to address issues of college preparation—including test prep. If students plan to spend four to six years in college, then continuing education divisions have a role not only to prepare them for college but also to ensure these students continue their lifelong learning needs later in life.

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[1] The Executive Office of the President of the United States, “Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students: Promising Models and a Call to Action,” The White House, January 2014. Accessed at

[2] Matea Pender, Jonathan Smith, Michael Hurwitz and Jessica Howell, “College Choice: Informing Students’ Trade-Offs Between Institutional Price and College Completion,” The College Board Policy Brief, October 2012.

[3] Watson Scott Swail, “Preparing America’s disadvantaged for college: Programs that increase college opportunity,” New Directions for Institutional Research (I 07), 85. 2000.

[4] “Quick Facts and FAQ”, The Posse Foundation. Accessed at

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