I came to the United States to pursue a graduate education in the late 1980s. I’m not sure whether the decision makers at University of Georgia — where I would earn my masters and doctoral degrees — reviewed all of the materials I submitted with my application. Did they know that the Hispanic Philology program at University of Barcelona, my undergraduate institution, had a phenomenal reputation throughout Spain? Perhaps they understood how the 10-point GPA in Spain correlated with the 4-point GPA system in the U.S.? Did my GRE scores help me be seen among domestic candidates whose backgrounds and connections were more familiar? I may never know.
But I do know that, however it happened, my acceptance to UGA spurred a lifelong love for academia. I joined the professoriate first at Radford University, then Arizona State University, and eventually rose to faculty head in my department, and became a visiting professor and scholar at prestigious institutions like the University of Pennsylvania. As I begin a new role as Executive Director of the GRE Program at ETS, I’ve been reflecting about various decision points in my journey and wondering what forces opened doors for me that otherwise might have been shut.
GRE scores need to be part of the mix as the only common, objective measure that applicants submit that is designed to be as fair as possible. As a community, we need to figure out how to account for group score differences, not drop the tool that provides evidence of those differences.
Today, there are three times as many masters and doctoral degrees conferred at U.S. institutions than there were in the 1980s, and twice as many international students are pursuing their graduate education here. More of those students are coming from Latin and South America, Africa and smaller countries in Asia — from more schools that faculty committees are likely to be unfamiliar with. While the cost of tuition and fees varies wildly, the average cost across graduate programs has quadrupled. Students themselves pay three-quarters of the tab, and half of that is borrowed, according to Sallie Mae. Think of the challenges facing young people today, who are submitting their applications to overwhelmed and under-resourced faculty committees who may not be familiar with their undergraduate institution, for a degree they aren’t sure they’ll be able to afford and may be paying off well into their adulthood. It’s no wonder that institutions are having a hard time increasing student diversity.
Forty years before I left my friends and family in Spain for new opportunities in the U.S., the nonprofit research organization I’m proud to represent today was founded. It was three years after the passing of the GI Bill, and the standardized testing industry took off as a way to help colleges deal with the influx of applicants, who would be considered based on their skills proficiency, rather than their family wealth. Over the years, although ETS warned against it, the use of cut scores has changed the reputation of the GRE test from a door opener that helps students of less advantaged backgrounds be seen to a gatekeeper that prevents applicants who don’t achieve a program-set minimum score from even being considered.
Moving toward holistic admissions — and reducing the overreliance on GRE scores or any single measure — is the only way to treat applicants ethically and equitably. GRE scores need to be part of the mix as the only common, objective measure that applicants submit that is designed to be as fair as possible. As a community, we need to figure out how to account for group score differences, not drop the tool that provides evidence of those differences. Underrepresented minorities, international students, and applicants from families with less socioeconomic power already have so many odds stacked against them due to systemic educational and societal disparities. Let’s prevent admissions bias from being another barrier to overcome. Let’s agree that complex, systemic problems can’t be solved by short-cut solutions, but rather, require investments in targeted initiatives that can help recruit diverse students, and then support them once enrolled.
More resources are becoming available to help the graduate community achieve these goals. Drawing on its 70 years of higher education experience and achievement gap research, ETS is helping by convening thought leaders, curating and sharing examples from peer institutions and making research-based resources available at www.holisticadmissions.org. We’re embracing the call to broaden our role, and are doing so with support, suggestions and insights from deans and faculty who represent their peers as members of the independently managed GRE Board.
I hope that when my two sons, Alberto and Diego, are college age, they will be evaluated holistically, for everything they can bring to a program. I hope that they will be active participants in diverse, supportive and inclusive communities. And I hope that when they look back on their careers, they appreciate that all of us, working together, opened the doors for them to be successful.
Alberto Acereda is Executive Director of GRE and College Programs at ETS.