All seventeen of UC Santa Cruz’s graduate engineering programs have chosen to temporarily waive the GRE test requirement for 2021 applicants. Ten programs have permanently dropped the test.
As the COVID-19 crisis extends into the Fall, it is pushing many universities to change the ways they make admission decisions. The standardized tests that most American institutions have relied on to help them evaluate students for over half a century can no longer be safely administered in public settings, and although some of these tests, like the GRE, have established an at-home proctoring option, this option is not available to all potential students. Given these concerns, the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz has decided to drop the GRE requirement for 2021 applicants. For over half of its programs, the move away from testing will be a permanent one.
Critics call the GRE a poor marker of success
Concerns over the viability of testing during a pandemic have accelerated conversations about standardized testing that began at Baskin Engineering long before the coronavirus. The conclusions that many departments have drawn reflect a larger movement among institutions of higher education.
“There is a movement called ‘GRExit’ that is all about how the GRE is a poor indicator of success in graduate school,” explains Matthew Guthaus, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at the Baskin School of Engineering and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. “Worse yet, it is bad for diversity and inclusion.”
Numerous studies have found that the GRE is not a very accurate predictor of whether or not a candidate will “succeed” in graduate school. For instance, a 2017 academic study in the biomedical sciences that concluded that, “Overall, the GRE did not prove useful in predicting who will graduate with a Ph.D., pass the qualifying exam, have a shorter time to defense, deliver more conference presentations, publish more first author papers, or obtain an individual grant or fellowship.”
Critics also claim that requiring the GRE limits campus diversity because performance on the test has been known to vary by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Even the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the GRE, admits that “disparities in performance among underrepresented groups still exist.” Standardized tests also tend to favor students with greater financial resources. Test prep is expensive, and the test itself costs between $205 and $255, depending on what country the applicant is in. Applicants can obtain fee waivers, but they must prove need, which can be an added hurdle during an already stressful application process.
Because of these concerns, some departments at top universities have been dropping the GRE as a requirement, but up until now, few engineering departments were among them. In May of last year, Science Magazine examined the graduate application requirements for programs at 50 top-ranked research institutions and found that “The life sciences have led the so-called GRExit push” while it had “yet to take hold” in disciplines like computer science.
“Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) programs have been reluctant to drop the GRE,” explains Guthaus. “From my discussions with colleagues and a number of universities, this reluctance is solely due to the large number of student applicants we get.”
Using COVID-19 as a trial period
Dropping the GRE is not a straightforward matter. The reason this test has had such a strong hold in our admissions processes for so long is that it provides a convenient tool for comparing large numbers of applicants from diverse institutions.
For now, Baskin Engineering’s CSE program has decided to permanently drop the GRE requirement for its Ph.D. program, but for its Master’s program, which receives far more applicants, it will use this year when the requirement is being waived due to the coronavirus as a trial period.
According to Guthaus, “While some programs at UCSC BSOE have already decided to permanently not require the GRE, all of the other programs are utilizing the COVID-19 waiver as an opportunity to establish and try new review processes that are more holistic and assess how difficult such a review would be in fields with so many applicants.”
The programs that have decided to permanently drop the GRE as a requirement in future admission decisions include both Master’s and Ph.D. programs in Applied Mathematics, Biomolecular Engineering, and Computational Media, as well as the Master’s programs for Games and Playable Media, Serious Games, and Scientific Computing and Applied Mathematics, and the Ph.D. program for Computer Science and Engineering. The remaining engineering programs have temporarily waived the requirement for this year’s applicants, but may decide to permanently drop it after they see how it impacts admissions.
If the experiment goes well, we might see more programs joining the GRExit very soon.