The Colorado School of Public Health, a coalition of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Colorado State University and the University of Northern Colorado that stands as the only accredited school of public health in the Rocky Mountain region, has dropped Graduate Record Examinations, popularly known as the GREs, from its admissions requirements.
The move is part of a growing national trend against the use of standardized test scores as a prerequisite to college entry at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Guadalupe Solís, a second-year grad student pursuing a master's degree in public health with a dual concentration in epidemiology and health policy, sees the action as important and appropriate based on her own observations.
"The GREs were a huge barrier for me," says Solís, whose parents are immigrants from Mexico. "One of the main barriers was the cost. In order to achieve a good score, you have to invest a lot of time, and that's going to take away from working and other things — and the study materials for the GREs are super-expensive for a lot of people. And I also don't feel the GREs equitably measure academic preparedness."
Dr. Lori Crane, the school's associate dean of academic affairs, echoes both of these points. She estimates the price tag for preparing for and taking the GREs at $500 or more — an amount that can price out plenty of worthy students. Moreoever, she says, "Our goal is to be able to serve all communities, and where we see the greatest health disparities is generally in lower socio-economic communities. Those communities can often best be served by people from the communities themselves, and if we're using something like the GREs and picking people who perform best on standardized tests — people who may come from educational backgrounds that are more advantageous — we're probably not going to get people from the communities where the need is greatest. And we'd like to see the diversity of our student body increase."
Data provided by Crane underscores the issue: "Right now, about 8 or 9 percent of our student body is Hispanic, and about 3 to 4 percent is African American. Those both under-reflect the population of Colorado and, certainly, the United States. And those are groups that the GREs generally are going to show bias against."
The numbers are no surprise to Solís — and from her perspective, there's even more to the story. "We do have some professors of color and some people from those ethnic minority groups," she acknowledges. "But it's really hard to find mentors or professors that come from the same backgrounds as you, or who understand your background — what it's like to be an immigrant, or from an immigrant family. And the student body is predominantly white, which can be very isolating. You do feel like an outlier. At times, I've been the only Latino woman, or the only person of color, in a classroom of thirty people."
The theory that standardized tests are exacerbating this problem has led to reflection or actual change at a wide variety of institutions. A recent Washington Post article notes that the nine-campus University of California system is currently conducting a study about whether the Scholastic Aptitude Test (the SATs) or American College Testing (the ACTs) should continue to be major factors in undergraduate admissions. (Note that the University of Colorado Boulder already treats the SAT/ACT writing sections as optional for applicants.) And at the graduate level, two Ivy League schools, Brown University and Princeton University, have pulled back on their GRE reliance. This month, Brown announced that scores from the test will no longer be required from those applying to 24 doctoral programs, while Princeton revealed that the GREs are now unnecessary for those bidding to enter fourteen of its graduate specialties, such as molecular biology and neuroscience.
According to Crane, the Colorado School of Public Health first began looking critically at its reliance on the GREs "in 2015 — but at that time, we weren't really asking the question, 'Should we get rid of it?' We were looking more broadly at what are the best predictors of success within our program. But we got serious qualms about it because of mounting evidence that they discourage a lot of people from entering our applicant pool. We are training people we want to solve the health problems of our communities, and we saw the GREs weren't really predicting the qualities that are needed to do that."
For one thing, she continues, "we use a lot of math in public health, and it's important. But the math in the GREs is pretty simple; it's algebra-based. And we also feel it's more important to look at the personal qualities of people applying — what their passions and interests are, how their backgrounds relate to public health, and how that relates to the challenges we're facing."
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As such, the Anschutz Medical Campus eliminated the GRE requirement "a couple of years ago," Crane points out. "But they left it up to individual programs within the graduate schools to make their own decisions" — which the entire Colorado School of Public Health system has now done.
Because the new rules take immediate effect, students currently applying to the school in advance of a January 15, 2020 deadline for the 2020-2021 academic year won't have to submit their GRE scores — and while they can do so if they wish, "I don't think the admissions committee has been using them as much as in previous years," Crane allows. "What we will rely on is undergraduate GPAs and work experience — and students write an essay where they talk about their career goals related to public health. We'll also be looking at letters of recommendation."
To Solís, waiving the GREs requirement is a good first step, but there's more that can be done to make the school more attractive to students like her. "I think another thing that might help are specific mentorship programs, where students of color or students coming from marginalized backgrounds can find mentors who've already gone through the process of becoming a public health professional — where people from those backgrounds can be an advocate for the community of students. And I think the school in general can be a bit more vocal or supportive — to say, 'This lack of diversity exists, and we want you to know as a student body that we support you, and we're doing what we can to address this.'"
She emphasizes "the need for the field of public health to be reflective of the community and the population they aim to help. With this change, I think we're really going to see the diversity of people who hold advanced degrees increase — and because, as researchers, we often choose questions from our own experiences and interests, a lot of the issues in our communities won't remain invisible anymore. They'll be further addressed in a meaningful way, because it will be coming from lived experience."