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Columnist Megan Ziemann criticizes the financial barriers to the GRE and the systemic issues surrounding its usage in graduate school applications.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two columns concerning graduate school conducted by Megan Ziemann. 

I want to go to graduate school. I’m not sure when or how or where, but I want to. Last week I talked about my journey with grad school and how my past as a gifted kid affected my desire to go. 

This week, let’s talk about actually going. Rather, let’s talk about why it’s so hard to go.

If you’re planning on attending grad school in the near future, chances are you’re going to be taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Created in 1949, the GRE was designed to measure skills like verbal and quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. The three-and-a-half to four-hour-long test is meant to be a benchmark assessment so graduate schools can better understand the potential incoming cohort of students. 

You can take the exam any time of the year at a GRE-specific testing center. The exam costs $205, and GRE preparation experts also recommend purchasing review books or even entire review courses that focus on each of the sections of the exam. But, hey, at least the practice test is free!

The GRE is one of many graduate school assessments a student can elect to take. For example, I’m a business student, so if I wanted to get my Masters in Business Administration (MBA), I could take the GRE or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).

Depending on the application, your GRE, GMAT or other test score can make or break your graduate school prospects. 

Which would be great if the GRE accurately measured students’ intelligence and readiness for graduate school. 

Instead, it fails to predict student success, and if it does, it only applies to that student’s first year of grad school. The test is centered around analytical thinking, which does account for some student success, but it does not measure concrete skills actually needed for the jobs students will have after graduate school. 

If anything, the test is an indicator of the students' socioeconomic background, race and gender. Black students, Indigenous students and students of color are massively underrepresented in graduate cohorts, and the GRE is partly to blame. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 8 percent of Black students and 5 percent of Hispanic or Latinx students have some form of an advanced degree. Taking the GRE takes money, time, labor and confidence — all things significantly easier for white people, men and other privileged groups to have. 

It feels like I write this in every column, but racism, sexism and classism are systemic, and until the system is changed, people from marginalized communities will continue to be marginalized in multiple ways. The GRE and other grad school entrance exams are no exception.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends from high school voiced her difficulties on Twitter about taking the test due to COVID-19 related closures. “Amazing that I registered for the GRE test back in February and I have not received one email from them since then,” she wrote. “I’ve tried to phone my test center multiple times to see if they’re open and I go straight to voicemail every time.”

My friend is entering her senior year at her university, just like I am. If she wants to go to graduate school right after undergrad, she’s running out of time to take the GRE. So far, she has received no help, no guidance and no contact with her testing center. 

If this is how GRE testing centers handle COVID-19, I am not surprised so many marginalized students don’t take the test at all. The test is expensive, long, aimed at privileged students and your results aren’t guaranteed to get you into any school. 

Even if you’re extremely qualified for a grad program and it’s your dream to have that second diploma, that dream is just not attainable for a lot of marginalized students. If you’re having to take out more loans, potentially move away from your family and not support them as much as you did in undergrad, why consider shelling out another $205 to take an exam?

Test fees are racist, sexist and most of all classist and should not be a normal part of getting an advanced degree.

Another friend of mine told me about their struggles with deciding whether to attend a grad program.

“I’m queer, I’m genderqueer, I’m an immigrant and I’m a person of color,” they said. “Higher education wasn’t made to serve the identities I hold.” 

They are considering law school, a field already known to be classist and sexist.

“I wanted to go into criminal prosecution," they told me, “because I saw that the criminal justice system does not serve or advocate for survivors and victims. It gets increasingly harder every day to justify going into a field that is not, and was never, designed to help people like me.”

As a cisgender, straight white person who comes from an average financial background, I don’t have to worry about most of the things my BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and low-income friends do. Sure, paying $205 to take a test is going to hurt, but it won’t prevent me from paying my rent or eating. Most of the time, my voice will be heard by my classmates and professors. Higher education is made to serve me.

Test fees are just another barrier for low-income, first-generation and otherwise marginalized students. Test fees keep poor people poor. 

The GRE does offer a fee reduction program that allows students who have demonstrated financial need to pay half the price of the original fee. However, there are a limited number of these fee reduction vouchers, and the burden is on the student to prove their financial hardship. 

To me, that’s not enough. The test should be free. 

Creating a change like this is hard, but privileged voices carry the words marginalized ones have been screaming for decades. If this is an issue you’re passionate about, take time to write to or call your legislators. Contact the organization that administers the GRE and voice your opinions. There is still so much we can do. 

It’s time for us to step up and break down systemic barriers to graduate school.

Because everyone who wants a degree should have the chance to get one.

Megan Ziemann profile pic

Megan Ziemann is a senior in marketing. 

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Letter to the Editor Submission Link

(5) comments

Steve Gregg

Your first problem is that you want to go to graduate school but you don’t know why or what subject. The Why and the What should come first. It sounds like you just want the credential to tell everyone how smart you are, much like you’re telling us about how gifted you are every fifth sentence. If all you want is a credential, you should get a Master’s of Liberal Arts (MLA). Nobody learns anything useful in an MLA. It’s perfect for you.

If you’re going to take the GRE, you should do it the summer after graduation, giving yourself some time to study and practice for the test. If you are going to take the GMAT, a course is tremendously helpful. I taught GMAT courses for years. The questions are much the same from test to test and are publicly released, so you can get a pretty good idea of what you will encounter. A course can give you some help in some of the topics and a lot of help in Data Sufficiency, which you should never take cold. You should take sample tests over and over until you run out of them. The main thing wrong with taking the GMAT is that it’s the test to enter an MBA program and employers don’t value MBAs. It’s a useless degree.

Yes, aptitude tests like the GRE, GMAT, SAT, and ACT only predict success in your first year. However, if you are going to flunk out, it will probably be in the first year. Once you have made it through your first year, the odds are high you will graduate unless you run out of money.

Aptitude is only part of success in college. Much of it relies on things like grit, energy, work habits, how predictable/chaotic your life is, and other opportunities that may pop up for you. These are not things you can test. Your expectations for the tests are unrealistic. And, really, your demand for life to be perfectly predictable and free of risk is one of the weaknesses of your Snowflake Generation we older generations find so amusing. Life is full of risk, snowflake. Embrace the risk. It will make you a better person.

Steve Gregg

The reason why there are fewer black and Hispanic graduate students is the same reason why there are fewer black and Hispanic college and high school graduates. Their cultures do not value education like Asians, who are study demons. Too many young blacks disdain academic success as acting white. Too many blacks scale back their academic efforts so that they will not get beaten up by their gangster peers.

Likewise, many Hispanics, particularly illegal aliens, don’t see the value of education past elementary school. They are expected to go to work after 8th grade. By contrast, Asian immigrants, who are just as poor as blacks and Hispanics, driven by their parents, excel at school. Immigrant Asians, Hispanics, and blacks all live in the same poor circumstances, yet the Asians go to college, even Ivy League schools, because their culture values education.

Claiming that minorities do not have graduate degrees because of us evil white people is the same old racist lie the Democrats peddle everywhere, which completely ignores the bad choices that many minorities make, claiming every bad outcome for minorities is caused by white racism. It is an intellectually defective argument, a form of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy where you assign blame based on proximity. It simpler terms, correlation is not causation. If you are a gifted student, why are you making these sophomoric errors in logic?

Steve Gregg

Racism, sexism and classism are not systemic in America, despite what lefty demagogues shriek. We’ve had a black president, a couple black Secretaries of State, a black chief of staff of the military, black senators and generals, black intellectuals and black billionaires. If America is systemically racist, how did all that happen? Either we have the most incompetent racists in the world or the claim of systemic racism is a lie. Hint: It’s a lie.

The same goes for systemic sexism. Women in America can achieve anything they please, if they are willing to work for it. However, most women want easier lives provided by men. When they do achieve important jobs like doctor or lawyer, they don’t work as hard as men nor do they work as long. When women behave like men, they get the same results as men, but most women don’t want to do that.

Systemic classism is the silliest charge. There are no permanent classes in America. The Federal Reserve shows that there is a constant churn of populations through all the classes centering on the middle class. Almost all poor people ascend into the middle class and almost all rich people descend into the middle class. A few poor people go all the way to the top and a few rich people go all the way to the bottom.

Mrs. Astor had a ballroom in her fabulous home in New York City that held 400 people way back during the Gilded Age. She invited the richest of the city to her balls. Of those four hundred, only a handful of their families remain rich. Their wealth dissipated through inheritance, mismanagement, stupidity, and bad luck, Mrs. Astor’s social class has disappeared back into the middle class or worse.

Steve Gregg

When I read your sob story about being shunted to voicemail when calling the GRE center, I marvel at how whiny you are. Yes, the coronavirus has disrupted everything, Whiny Girl. Everyone is equally affected. Women and minorities are not hardest hit. Eventually, the GRE will send you mail that tells you where and when to show up. So, stop hyperventilating and claiming everything is racist like a lefty loony. Sheesh!

Claiming that test fees are racist Is indication that you have reached Lefty Peak Stupid. The fees are the same for everyone. And, really, if you can’t afford the entrance exam, you can’t afford grad school, which is expensive. A text for one of your classes probably costs as much as your entrance exam. And, no, the exams should not be free, snowflake. The world does not owe you free entrance exams. No matter how much you want other people’s money, it’s not yours. Go earn the money to pay for your own entrance exam, you whiny, liberal grifter.

Zuzeca Sape

I agree the GRE shouldn't be used as a grad school admissions criterion, but for completely different reasons that Ms. Ziemann mentions.

Standardized tests were originally used as a means of combating privilege in higher ed admissions. In an era when family ties and university legacies were the prime drivers behind admissions, standardized tests gave those with intelligence - but not privilege - a chance to attend elite universities. Likewise, such tests gauged a student's likelihood of success, thereby preventing the student from accruing debt in pursuit of a degree they were not intelligent enough to complete. In this sense, there is *some* danger that eliminating standardized admissions tests would reinforce, rather than eliminate, privilege-influence in admissions.

However, the thing that damns admissions tests most is the fact that first-year courses tend to weed out those not fit for a given field. There's no need to take a test to determine what first-year courses will decide anyway. It's best to give students a chance, on the off chance they would have failed the test, but succeeded in their chosen field of study. The danger to that, however, is a wave of optimistic, but ill-prepared students flooding freshman classes only to fail, not only degree-less, but now saddled with debt they can't shake.

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