ACT report reveals disparities in college prep opportunities due to COVID-19

Almost half of the class of 2021 reported that at least one college prep activity was canceled due to pandemic restrictions

ACT campus
The ACT campus in Iowa City. IMAGE VIA ACT

ACT, based in Iowa City, released new survey data recently showing strong links between participating in college preparation activities and applying to college among the class of 2021.

Though students in the class of 2021, including most college-bound students, said that they participated in college preparation activities, some students’ participation was interrupted by the pandemic, company officials said.

“College preparation activities are the first steps on a student’s college-going journey,” said Lisa King, director of the American College Application Campaign at ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, in a release. “This report shows how participating in college preparation activities is directly linked to positive college application behaviors. College preparation efforts that empower the college-going process are more important than ever.”

ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT college readiness exam, recommends that high schools help students, and their parents, understand why college preparation opportunities are helpful and what college-related information students would be able to obtain through these opportunities. Further, it is recommended that high schools make sure that students of all groups have the same access to these opportunities, as the transition to virtual college preparation activities could have led to a disadvantage for traditionally underserved populations. High schools should consider adding or increasing college application completion activities following the American College Application Campaign model, which provides school-day activities with trusted adults, ACT said.

Key factors that increased the likelihood of a student engaging in college preparation opportunities included exposure to in-person learning and taking college-credit courses.

The amount of in-person learning students had during the past school year was a key element in participation in college preparation activities among students from the class of 2021, according to ACT’s analyses. About 44% of students had been learning mostly or exclusively in-person, 36% learned mostly or exclusively online, and the remaining 20% had a mix of the two modes of learning. With an increase in exposure to in-person learning, the likelihood of participating in college preparation activities increased, and the more in-person learning a student had, the lower the number of plans disrupted by the pandemic.

Taking college-credit courses in high school is another significant factor of participation in college preparation activities. More than three-quarters (76%) of the students surveyed reported that they took a course or courses that award college credit (e.g., dual enrollment) in high school, and taking college-credit courses increased the chance of participating in five out of the seven college preparation activities, including visiting a college campus, talking with a college representative who visited their high school, and talking with a teacher, counselor, or college representative about applying to a specific college or colleges, applying for financial aid, and which college major might be a good fit. In addition, the college preparation plans of students who took college-credit courses were less likely to be disrupted during the pandemic.

Students from low-income family backgrounds, Hispanic/Latino students, and Asian students were more likely to report higher numbers of activities that were disrupted by the pandemic. For students from low-income family backgrounds, one explanation for the disruption of college planning activities could be the digital divide.

Students from the class of 2021 relied more on virtual events to connect with colleges compared to previous cohorts, and previous research has found inequities in access to technological devices and the internet, with students from traditionally underserved backgrounds (e.g., low-income family background) more likely to have limited access. As virtual college preparation events and programs became pervasive after the pandemic restrictions, students with limited access to technological devices and the internet could have been disadvantaged. Hispanic/Latino and Asian students were more likely to have had their education disrupted by the pandemic due to financial cost, the need to work, caring for a family member, and health concerns, according to a recent study. Although Hispanic/Latino students and Asian students in this study reported they still planned to attend a postsecondary institution, the disruption of their participation in college preparation activities could be due to similar reasons.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes to students from the class of 2021, such as remote learning, limited in-person college visit opportunities, and decreased access to school counselors due to school closures. To understand students’ college preparation experiences, in May 2021, ACT surveyed high school seniors who took the ACT test between September 2020 and June 2021. The purpose of the survey was to learn about student participation in college preparation opportunities in high school and its relationship with their perception of preparedness and subsequent college application behaviors.