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Administrators, businesses, universities address systematic advantage of wealth in college preparation

Eight ACT tutoring sessions: $2000.

Three ACT test fees: $157.50.

Three meetings with a college counselor: $270.

Five college application fees: $265.


This is senior Hannah Goettsch’s college preparation receipt.

Through her investment — and effort, of course — Goettsch raised her ACT score 7 points, strengthened college essays and the “Activities” section of her Common Application and got into all five schools she applied to.

The bill might seem big with a passing glance, but 63% of East students said their parents would be willing to spend as much money as they could on college preparations like tutoring and counseling in a poll. Additionally, 43% of upperclassmen used or plan to use private ACT tutoring.

But what about the students who can’t afford it?

With increased concern over perfecting applications and maximizing results on standardized tests, students have turned to private services that give people able to spend the money an upper hand in the college application process — tasking administrators, businesses and universities with addressing the discrepancy.

A 2016 report by ACT shows that the achievement gap between low and high income families regarding ACT scores has been gradually increasing — on a 36-point scale, the average ACT score was 19.5 for students from families bringing in less than $80,000 per year, and 23.6 for families who make more. A 2017 report found that underserved high school students lacking access to “high-level educational opportunities” like private counseling and tutoring also tended to show lower college readiness in general.

This income-based disparity is seen at East and across the district, according to East administrators. Some students have the money to seek outside help — like private tutoring and practice tests — but many do not. Those students, according to Instructional Coach Kristoffer Barikmo and former principal, SMSD Director of Family and Student Services Dr. John McKinney, are left behind in the process. 

“Anybody that is telling you that everything’s fine at East is perpetuating a stereotype that is a false narrative,” McKinney said. “Because yes, some of our families are doing very well. But there are many families that are struggling, just like many thousands of families across our district and our country.”

Principal John McKinney introduces author Tanner Colby to East students at the assembly. Photo by Audrey Kesler

Former principal and SMSD Director of Student & Family Services Dr. John McKinney


According to a 2018 study by ACT, working with private tutors improved scores more than web-based courses, work from a guidebook or any other form of test preparation.

These private tutors cater to each student’s specific needs and enhance abilities like noticing patterns and trends, navigating each section strategically and knowing which bubbles to fill in randomly when there’s only a minute left in a section, according to mechanical engineer and ACT tutor Alex Pint and GetSmarterPrep President Caleb Pierce.

Pint’s services usually stand at $40-45 per hour, and GetSmarterPrep’s one-on-one tutoring ranges from $150-$350 per hour. To account for students who don’t have the money to afford this help, East is pursuing solutions to increase the amount of students taking the ACT and tighten the success gap between income levels, Barikmo said.

Barikmo and McKinney sat down in September 2017 to address the success gap between students of high and low income families. Barikmo, as a result, wrote a free, self-paced ACT preparation course available to all East students through Google Classroom, with 443 students enrolled since Fall 2017.

“The idea was, if you bring the intrinsic motivation, willingness to do it and some natural ability and intelligence, we’ll bring a free test-taking program that will help accentuate those things,” McKinney said.

Its goal was primarily to increase student participation — and it did, according to Barikmo. Test participation increased by roughly 12 percent from the previous year in the 17-18 school year, which he considers to be a success.

East also partnered with GetSmarterPrep and Pierce to host multiple ACT group parent sessions last spring, where students and parents could ask questions they had regarding the test and the preparation required for it.


GetSmarterPrep logo

Furthermore, the East Fund recently approved a $15,000 grant to the Love Fund earmarked for “educational purposes” to help students with anything from ACT prep to general tutoring, according to East Fund President Jenny Spencer.

But some students find these services to be insufficient for targeting specific aspects of the ACT, despite their financial practicality.

“When I took the practice ACT, my Reading and English scores were really, really low, but Math and Science were really high,” senior Jack Moren said. “So going into [an online ACT class], which is the cheap option, was not going to benefit me as well…I had to go with the private tutor option to boost my English and Reading scores.

Pint suggests that students take the ACT as many times as they’re able to throughout their junior and senior year of high school, but the number of times they’re able to is directly dependent on that student’s financial flexibility, as each test costs at least $49.50 to take.

Universities have stepped in to help alleviate some of the financial pressure of the ACT by offering test-optional applications. Although major local universities like the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri still require standardized test scores, other schools in the Midwest, such as The University of Chicago, have implemented a test-optional application process. UChicago announced their plan last summer as part of an initiative to “[level] the playing field” for “first-generation and low-income students,” John Boyer, Dean of the College, said in a statement on their website.

DePaul University, also located in Chicago, opted for test-optional applications in 2011 to give well-rounded applicants or underprivileged students who may not have performed well on standardized testing equal opportunity for admission, according to DePaul Admissions Counselor Sarah Finck.

“Historically, Chicago public schools have not been super well-funded, so in part it’s because of the neighborhoods that we’re trying to support,” Finck said. “A lot of these schools don’t offer the resources to help students to prep for these mandatory tests. [Test-optional gives] opportunities to students who may not have the resources to be able to properly study for these tests.”

If students opt out of sending test scores, they aren’t at a disadvantage — rather, the university considers their GPA, essays, extracurriculars and letters of recommendation more to reinforce their application, filling in the blank left by the absence of a test score, according to Finck.

But just as private tutors can help improve standardized test scores for those who can afford it, private application assistance and college counselors can help perfect these other aspects of college applications. Private counselors can also sort through options during the planning phase, like which schools correlate most directly to the student’s grades or which schools would offer the most money in scholarships.

Another financial barrier, then, presents itself in the cost of those services and counselors.


In addition to their standardized test tutoring, GetSmarterPrep also offers private essay-writing classes, which cost $295 for 10 hours in a group or $150 per hour one-on-one.

Senior CJ Manne took a four-day college essay workshop at the beginning of last summer through the Pembroke Hill School. Over the course of the $280 session, Manne received feedback, edits and assistance from Pembroke’s college counselors, helping him to complete several essays in the first two weeks of summer. 

East has only five counselors to support just short of 1800 students, according to Barikmo, leaving many to opt for private college counselors to help them find scholarship opportunities and research schools. Private counseling is offered by GetSmarterPrep through multiple $295 courses or by independent counselors — Goettsch’s private counseling cost $90 per hour.

East alum and college freshman Lainie Duckworth used a private counselor to assist her college search last year and, on her counselor’s recommendation, applied to and pursued scholarships at Syracuse — ultimately receiving a full-tuition scholarship.

“She was kind of the reason I ended up applying [to Syracuse],” Duckworth said. “I honestly couldn’t tell you whether or not I would’ve applied if she wouldn’t have brought it up.”

All of these private opportunities and extra factors in the college application process are part of a “hidden curriculum,” according to Barikmo — one that East, he said, is not fully equipped to deal with. 

“The private community that might not have everybody in it is able to say, ‘Well these are the teachers you definitely need to have,’” Barikmo said. “‘These are the classes you definitely need to take, these are the places you need to go to get your college counseling — because our counselors aren’t equipped to be able to handle all of that work.’”

Due to East’s large counselor-to-student ratio, Barikmo stresses the important role that other administrators, like Athletic Director Debbie Katzfey, have in giving some students “at least a ticket to the college admissions process.”

Katzfey works with coaches to identify student athletes that plan to play at the collegiate level and ensure they are taking the ACT as well as the necessary classes to meet requirements. She helps them with their application process, provides resources for free ACT prep like Barikmo’s self-paced course and gets in touch with university compliance officers to ensure their readiness.

According to junior Robert Moore — who plans to further his baseball career after high school at either the collegiate or professional level — Katzfey is an essential part of any East student athlete’s path to a future career.

Then-freshman Robert Moore jumps up to catch the ball and attempts to tag out the baserunner who stole second base. Photo by Luke Hoffman

Katzfey approached Moore his freshman year and mapped out an academic path that fit the NCAA’s requirements. To this day, he said, she commits to keeping his grades and attendance well above NCAA standards.

For those who aren’t student athletes and are still unsure of their options, what East can do, according to Barikmo, is “demystify” the college preparation process and make known students’ access to different need-based resources, such as ACT waivers for students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. 


Instructional Coach Kristoffer Barikmo

Although no full partnership has materialized yet, East has been developing relations with GetSmarterPrep since last spring by brainstorming new opportunities outside of the parent informational sessions. One idea, Barikmo said, is to begin targeting and providing assistance to students without experience in Geometry and/or Algebra 2 by the latter half of high school, or students who fall in the class’s middle to lower performance level.

According to Pierce, it’s important to make sure students have as much experience, specifically in Algebra 2, as possible before they take the ACT — and, if they don’t, focus efforts on those concepts before implementing test-taking strategy.

Pierce offered to send a private tutor to East once or a few times a week for free, whether specifically for the ACT or providing general tips to prepare. According to Pierce, GetSmarterPrep is “willing and ready” to implement new ideas like these for all East students, but ideas are still in the planning phase.


The company also offers free ACT practice tests for any student to take at either of their two locations, including a free walkthrough of their results with a tutor. East students, Pierce said, have easy access to a practice test before they begin the process regardless of whether they plan to utilize the company’s paid services.  

Despite the unclear plan of action to further expand college preparation opportunities at East, Barikmo said he and the administration have recognized the disparity in resources for certain students. And right now, the school needs to work harder to highlight what’s currently available as plans for the future develop.

“It’s things like [standardized testing and college preparation] that require us as a school to do a better job of communicating that those support mechanisms are out there, so that none of those that need help find that it becomes a burden to be able to pay for it,” Barikmo said. “We certainly can’t pay for private tutors, we can’t pay for private college counselors, but we can certainly help kids find some of those things.”

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Author Spotlight

Ben Henschel

Ben Henschel
Senior Ben Henschel is entering his second year on Harbinger, this time as co-Editor-in-Chief, co-Broadcast Editor, lead anchor, a copy editor and member of the Editorial Board. Big politics and sports. Tons of playlists and pet peeves. Leader of Students Demand Action club, Young Democrats Club (but is a moderate, left-leaning), plays tennis, involved in SHARE, DECA, Choraliers and SME Youth & Gov. Owns a lawn mowing business. Loves to argue and can’t stand to settle. KU and Maryland ... »

Will Tulp

Will Tulp
Will Tulp is the Harbinger's Online Editor-in-Chief this year. In his four years working for the publication, he has produced content for print, online and multimedia, winning awards at NSPA/JEA National Conventions and becoming a member of Quill and Scroll along the way. Outside of the Harbinger, Will is in IB, on the varsity soccer team and plays a few instruments. »

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