Research shows relationship between ACT scores and where students attend college

May 23, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

ACT Test and Graduation Cap
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Statistics show Nebraska students are more likely to stay in state for college as their ACT scores increase, but that rate starts to fall once a student's score exceeds 30.

The study came from a Nebraska Statewide Workforce & Educational Reporting System (NSWERS) report released this month. Researchers looked at how ACT scores related to college enrollment patterns for about 80,000-90,000 students from four years of ACT tests.

Alex Brodersen, the assistant director for research and evaluation at NSWERS, said the data can help the state understand a component of brain drain, which is when students leave Nebraska after graduation.

“For the first time, we're able to look at something really specific — and that's ACT scores — and really pick apart that college going relationship in a way that we haven't been able to do so before,” Brodersen said.

Matt Hastings, executive director of NSWERS, agreed with Brodersen. He said the research narrows down college choice patterns, like private or public, two-year or four-year and in-state or out-of-state.

“It really looks at who it is that we're keeping in the state and who is leaving,” Hastings said. “I think one of the big takeaways here is that it's highlighting that those students who perform very well academically, at least as measured by the ACT, are much more likely to leave the state for college than they are to stay here in Nebraska.”

The students more likely to leave are those who score above 30 on the ACT. This data confirms what colleges like the University of Nebraska have said about the state’s highest ACT earners leaving. NU introduced a new full-ride scholarship this year for students with a perfect ACT score in an effort to keep those students in Nebraska.

Hastings said while it’s important for the state to have conversations about keeping the highest ACT scorers in state, it’s also important to recognize those students are a small fraction of high schoolers in Nebraska.

“Part of the conversation has to be around what we do to be able to retain the very best and brightest in the state, but there also needs to be a related conversation around just numbers,” Hastings said. “How many students are actually in that 30-plus range, as opposed to how many Nebraska students can and should be retained, for example, through an ACT score range of 20-30.”

The report also showed that following the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a drop in the average ACT score across the state. It was less than a point, but Brodersen said that could make a difference in what a student chooses after high school.

“If you happen to be at a tipping point between being more likely to go to a four-year or a two-year and you drop the score by a point, suddenly you're more likely to change the type of institution that you might attend,” Brodersen said. “Now, when you aggregate that across a large number of individuals that might have a pretty big difference in the long run.”

Students with an ACT score higher than 18 are more likely to choose a four-year college over a two-year college. Students with scores above 30 are more likely to choose private institutions over public.

This research is part of NSWERS efforts to understand the educational workforce pipeline in Nebraska. The organization previously released data in March analyzing how taking dual enrollment courses can impact student educational outcomes.