No GRE, No Problem: Texas’ Graduate Schools See Increase in Enrollment and Diversity
By Alexa K. Haverlah
It had been six years since Kendal Wise took the Graduate Record Examination, long enough that her test scores were no longer valid. But she didn’t need to take the standardized test again last year when applying to graduate programs in behavioral analysis.
That’s because nearly all graduate schools waived the GRE requirement in 2020 during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Her reaction to not having to take the GRE again was short and sweet: “Yay!”
Wise is one of more than 36,000 students who applied to the graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin in 2020, a 24% increase from 2019. The university’s graduate programs set records for enrollment in 2021 — 4,699 students, up 36% from 2020. More Asian American, Black, Hispanic and international students enrolled in graduate school at the university than ever before.
Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Texas State Universities all reported record-breaking enrollment during fall 2021 as well.
Nearly 1,000 more students enrolled in graduate programs at Texas A&M than in 2020. Enrollment of women is up 8.5%, and enrollment of underrepresented minorities is up 8.8%. Texas State enrolled 102 new doctoral students, a 19% increase from the previous year. Graduate enrollment is up more than 4% at Texas Tech, reported the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
Experts credit the increases to waiving the GRE or making such tests optional, along with economic and career changes caused by the pandemic.
The GRE is a computer-based standardized test owned and operated by Educational Testing Service. The test includes analytical writing and quantitative and verbal reasoning sections. Although many graduate schools in the U.S. require the GRE, its significance varies widely among schools and among departments within schools. After COVID-19 closed some testing centers and limited the ability of students to sit for the exam, many colleges waived their GRE requirements in 2020.
Even before COVID, some critics called for schools to eliminate the GRE, saying the test is a financial burden and a poor predictor of success.
Although not as widespread as the movement to get rid of the ACT and SAT, which are used for undergraduate admissions, the so-called GRExit is gaining ground, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
“Standardized test scores are not useful and create barriers for women and minorities in graduate programs,” Schaeffer said.
Racial disparities in standardized test scores are well documented and acknowledged by the testing industry. ETS recommends that schools consider student applications holistically, viewing the GRE as one component of many, and that they assign significance to GRE scores before reviewing any applications.
Some supporters of the GRE say it’s an objective metric to compare students from different colleges.
“If used appropriately, the test can actually help reduce barriers and enable access for people from underrepresented groups,” said Alberto Acereda, associate vice president of higher education at ETS, via email. “GRE scores can help you balance out weaker parts of your application and ensure that admissions committees see you among peers who may have had different experiences and opportunities than you.”
After nearly doubling its applicants, and a notable increase in applications from underrepresented minorities, UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs was “curious enough to do further study on the predictive utility of the GRE for our own programs,” said Kate Weaver, the school’s associate professor of public affairs and associate dean for students.
The LBJ School saw its applications from non-white students increase from 32% of all applicants in 2020 to 40% in 2021.
The LBJ School has always taken a holistic approach to admissions, so waiving the GRE did not fundamentally change the process or outcomes of decision-making, Weaver said.
“It’s one of those things that probably made a difference,” Weaver said. “It allowed us to go from 500-600 applicants to over 1,100 and make important progress in our DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) goals.”
The LBJ School is conducting a cost-benefit analysis to determine what might be beneficial data from the GRE about students’ levels of preparation for the public affairs program against the diversity gains seen this year, Weaver said.
In a couple of years, the school will have enough data to tell whether the GRE shows anything important about student GPA, student retention and degree completion, Weaver said. For now, the LBJ School is making the GRE optional for fall 2022 applicants.
Students without related work experience or the best grades may choose to submit their GRE scores to demonstrate their capability, said Gregorio Ponti, a doctoral student in physics at UT-Austin and last year’s graduate student assembly president.
The GRE benefits graduate schools in two ways, Ponti said. First, when a student signs up for the GRE, ETS communicates to graduate schools across the country that this person intends to go to graduate school, allowing schools to recruit and advertise to a select pool.
Second, since the GRE is intended to help graduate schools compare applicants from different colleges, it’s a “convenient way” for universities to decide between two students, Ponti said.
“The spanner in the works are the people who have the time, resources, and money to prepare and take the test,” Ponti said. He estimates spending $1,000 to take the GRE – its base cost is $205 – and to send his scores to eight schools.
“When you take away an additional cost, you’re already opening doors for lower-income students,” Wise said.
It’s up to graduate programs at UT-Austin to request policy changes for standardized tests through the Graduate Assembly. Requests must be based on evidence that the GRE does not predict success for that program.
“The GRE may be indicative of inherent skills, socioeconomic privileges, or access to special prep courses,” Weaver said, “Or it could simply reflect how long a student has been out of school.”
The LBJ School is “doing our homework” before making a request for a permanent GRE waiver, Weaver said.
“I’m happy about it because we’re doing what the LBJ school teaches,” Weaver said. “We’re engaging in evidence-based research to inform our own policies.”