Registering for the SAT: 45 dollars. Registering for an SAT Subject Test: 20 dollars. Registering for the ACT Plus Writing: 47 dollars. Registering for an Advanced Placement (AP) exam: 86 dollars. The feeling you get after being ripped off: priceless.
For most students, paying to take the exams necessary to apply for college is an inescapable evil, as inevitable as death or paying taxes. Even those who receive fee waivers can’t escape the expenses that come with sending the scores to multiple colleges or sending the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile to private institutions. (Ironically, this is the form that helps determine the amount of financial aid one receives.) A senior applying to college can easily spend over 25 dollars per college just by sending their scores and using other College Board and ACT services.
The exorbitant prices that both non-profits charge translate to hundreds of millions in revenue that is supposed to go to expenses such as administering exams and processing test scores. With nearly two million students taking the SAT, nearly three million students taking the PSAT (which costs 13 dollars per student), and nearly three million students taking AP exams, the College Board, in 2006, the most recent year the organization’s tax returns are available, made 582.9 million dollars but spent only 527.8 million dollars. ACT, Inc. had an even larger percent surplus, bringing in 236.8 million dollars in 2006 and spending only 198.5 million.
Where does the extra money go? Since these organizations are operating as non-profits, it is categorized as “excess,” money that should, by law, be carried over to next year’s budget. However, education reform groups have accused the College Board of pocketing its extra 55 million dollars and the ACT, Inc. its extra 38.3 million dollars towards the paychecks of board trustees. Both organizations have, at some point, had their non-profit status under investigation by state attorney generals. Their chief executive officers (CEO) are overcompensated with ridiculous sums of money. Gaston Caperton, CEO of the College Board and former governor of West Virginia, makes 830,832 dollars per year, more than twice the salary of the United States President. The CEO of ACT, Inc., Richard Ferguson, is paid 630,918 dollars a year, a large sum for anyone working for a non-profit. Overcompensation has led the Iowa Attorney General to investigate the ACT’s non-profit status since 2008.
The disproportionate payments are not the only reason the College Board and ACT, Inc. should be under stricter scrutiny. The two organizations are run like companies. The College Board in particular, as a membership association, receives money from schools that join its organization. It costs our school 325 dollars a year just to be part of the College Board and receive benefits such as administering the SAT and having AP programs. When Caperton became CEO back in 1999, he pledged to make the College Board “a force to make American education better.” This meant expanding the organization and creating programs that would further its already deep entrenchment in the culture of American education. These new programs included Score Choice, which many critics argued would encourage students to take the tests multiple times and a proposed middle school college readiness test that never came to fruition.
Every time we pay to take a test, send a score, or send a financial aid profile, we are essentially paying for a service. The two testing agencies aren’t just administering an exam— they sell their tests and, in the case of the College Board’s AP program, course curricula. The SAT and ACT have become such powerful establishments in our culture that it seems almost impossible to bring them down. The College Board, in 2007, spent 794,417 dollars lobbying government officials to adopt policies that would allow its exams to be used for various educational and professional purposes. ACT, Inc. spent 152,310 dollars doing the same. People pay for test prep programs, so much so that the two organizations have felt the need to produce and sell their own test prep materials to compete with other for-profit test prep companies like the Princeton Review and Kaplan.
Even worse, the organizations are fueling their own existence. In order for an organization to maintain its non-profit status, it needs to pass a review by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) every five years to make sure it is executing its social mission appropriately. The educational missions of the College Board and ACT, Inc. are “to connect students to access and opportunity, to prepare more and more students to be ready to go to college and succeed.” In other words, to get people into college. And people can’t get into college without taking the SAT or ACT. Essentially, they have monopolized a market that they themselves created. As long as the tests continue to exist, the money will continue to roll in. The questionable practices of these two supposed non-profits are just more proof that we need to focus less on testing to measure college readiness and more on academic performance and personal essays.