Bias and Barriers Have Admissions Officials Asking: Why Require the GRE?

Graduate schools all over the country rely on standardized testing, but that may be hurting the student body.
(Photo: David Schaffer)
Nov 7, 2015· 4 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

Monterica Neil’s high school in Memphis was notoriously underperforming. Gang activity was a tangible threat in her life, yet she succeeded in becoming the first in her family to attend college. There, professors encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree and a career in writing, which felt great—until she saw the cost of applying to schools.

“I was looking up application fees and test costs, and I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t think it was something I could afford to do.”

Application fees for graduate programs can run up to $125, but applying to schools is just part of the cost. One of the biggest barriers for people wanting advanced degrees is a nearly four-hour test of verbal, reasoning, and math skills. The Graduate Record Exam is meant to measure a student’s ability to succeed in a graduate program, with test-prep class prices ranging from the hundreds to the thousands, and the test itself at $195 per appointment, with an additional $195 for subject-specific tests. If you’d like schools to know your scores—which is the point, of course—that’ll be another $25 fee for every school that receives them. With the average student applying to five programs, critics say the GRE is only testing your wealth and your ability to decode the test’s methods.

David Charbonneau, a professor in Harvard University’s department of astronomy, has qualms about asking prospective students to pony up $1,000 to prep for and take the GRE. But cost is his secondary concern.

“[The GRE] has an enormous impact on gender and race,” Charbonneau said. “We’re looking at demographic data that is worrying.”

Charbonneau sees many programs that employ a cutoff score, which the company that administers the GRE, Educational Testing Service, does not recommend.

“If you put in a cutoff of, say, people who are above the 40th percentile, that immediately removes three-quarters of the women. It throws out 91 percent of the African Americans. If you think there might be some good black astronomy students, you’ve already cut out almost all the applicant pool who are black,” he explained.

Researchers have explored this bias, saying in a 2014 study, “In simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin color than of ability and ultimate success.”

As the head of the graduate admissions committee of his department, Charbonneau has taken a stand on looking more closely at a student’s undergraduate coursework and extracurricular activities than at the individual’s GRE scores, and he’s gotten promising results.

“For the first time in our department’s history, the demographics of our newest incoming class reflect the demographics in the United States in terms of race and gender,” Charbonneau said. “I think [reconsidering] requiring the GRE is an issue that’s getting a lot of traction. The American Astronomical Society is considering if they should be discouraging the use of cutoff scores or whether we should request the departments make the test optional.”

While some may say that a graduate degree is an unnecessary luxury if you’re not becoming a scientist or a lawyer, consider that in every profession, a graduate degree secures higher wages than a bachelor’s degree does. Teaching, for instance, pays on average $10,000 more to those with a master’s, which may not seem like a lot, but many teachers must work an additional part-time job to supplement their income—take Texas, where at least 41 percent of teachers reported working a second job. So that small increase is enough to eliminate that extra job. But in broader terms, a master’s degree grants privileges outside of monetary compensation.

Jay Rosner is an admissions test expert and the executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, the nonprofit wing of the test-prep company that works with low-income and underrepresented minority students.

“A graduate degree is increased influence or even power, or access to power, which becomes very, very important in minority communities,” Rosner said. This access to power is crucial when job hunting or applying for fellowships. Reaching the upper echelon of an academic department guarantees more recommendations and face time with people who may hold sway.

Despite his affiliations with the test-prep company, Rosner actively discourages admissions committees from requiring the GRE. He’s concerned by the amount of money wealthier students pay to companies to learn how to take these tests, setting them up as better GRE candidates. But even with the test-prep courses, Rosner is worried about internal biases and “cultural access.”

“White students and Asian students walk into those classes, sit down on the first day, ready to go. They know the context, the importance. They know people who already took the test and have been through it. When black, Latino, or Native students come in, they’re sitting there on the first day, and they’re wondering, ‘Why am I here? Is this important? If it is, why is it important?’ There’s a lack of clarity in the situation. ‘Is this really worth my time?’”

According to Rosner, it might not be. He suggests that instead of using standardized tests—SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT—as entrance exams, high schools and undergraduate programs should use the knowledge on standardized tests as part of their curriculum to work up to that knowledge base.

Bob Schaeffer of FairTest has problems not just with the GRE but also with its makers. Though it’s technically a nonprofit, ETS’ profits have risen steadily in the past decade, making its CEO and board members some of the most highly compensated individuals at any American nonprofit ever. Aside from business practices, Schaeffer says ETS is supposedly self-regulating its tests for bias.

“It’s about the same quality as testing done by the tobacco industry,” Schaeffer said. “If you want to sell a prescription drug in the U.S., you need to prove to an independent body that it is safe and effective. It’s not true with standardized tests. If you’ve got a contract, you can sell standardized tests. It’s the Wild West.”

With standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT being eliminated in cities like New York, Schaeffer thinks it may be a matter of time before we don’t need graduate exams like the GRE. Until then, he says he’s fighting inertia. Everyone knows the GRE is more about measuring how well you can take that particular test than it is about measuring aptitude, ability, or knowledge.

“They say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ And there’s prestige, psychological value to those scores. It makes you look more competitive. They contribute to the ranking of schools in U.S. News and World Report. It’s a form of numerology, almost. When you have a number, you think you have something tangible, even if it came off a Ouija board. It creates a false sense of precision. Test scores are totally irrelevant,” Schaeffer said.

Until academic graduate departments can agree on a better measure, prospective students like Neil will be taking the dreaded GRE.

On the suggestion of her professor, Neil started a GoFundMe page to crowdfund her GRE testing and application costs. Within 24 hours, she surpassed a modest monetary goal by 150 percent and can now even apply to a few more schools.

Would she be applying to schools without the crowdfunding money?

“I had a plan to starve, honestly—not buy groceries so I could apply to these schools,” she said. “Now I don’t have to worry. I can just apply.”