Rackham Graduate School has long promoted the use of holistic admissions practices in graduate education. Holistic admissions practices evaluate the skills, experience, knowledge, and potential of an applicant by considering the academic, professional, and personal record along multiple dimensions. Through this practice, components of the graduate application that are most reflective of an applicant’s accomplishments and promise are identified and used for admissions decisions.
In response to research indicating that the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) general test is a poor indicator of student success in graduate programs, Rackham has neither used the GRE as a selection factor in any of its fellowships, nor based any assessment of program success or excellence on student GRE test scores for several years. Through its annual admissions workshop, Rackham has worked collaboratively with programs to refine their holistic admissions practices to either exclude or deemphasize the GRE. In the last five years, many graduate programs—at the University of Michigan and elsewhere—have ended the use of GRE test scores in doctoral admissions decisions. Newly published research continues to find that GRE general test scores are not predictive of doctoral program degree completion in multiple disciplines.
Because of the disruption of the pandemic, Rackham Graduate School further recommended that graduate programs suspend the use of the GRE in admissions during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 admission cycles. Most programs did not use the GRE in admissions decisions in the last (2020-2021) admissions cycle. Preliminary analysis indicates that the pool of doctoral applicants was enriched by more applications from domestic, underrepresented minority, and Rackham Merit Fellowship-eligible populations, including first-generation students and students who were Pell Grant recipients. Rackham programs have expressed confidence in the process by which their doctoral cohorts were recruited and enrollment trends for fall 2021 are positive.
To further strengthen its mission of partnering with graduate faculty and programs to advance excellence in graduate education at the University of Michigan, Rackham is now pursuing a community discussion with the proposed goal of ending the use of the GRE in doctoral program admissions, beginning with the 2022-2023 admissions cycle. If this change is enacted, GRE general test scores will no longer be collected on the Rackham application for use in doctoral admissions at the University of Michigan.
Preliminary discussions of the use of the GRE in graduate admissions were held with chairs and directors of Rackham programs and the Rackham Executive Board during the 2021 winter term. There will be further opportunity for comment and discussion of the proposed change to the Rackham application by the Rackham community. These opportunities are (1) graduate faculty forums on November 11 and 12; (2) a mechanism for members of the graduate community to provide written feedback on the proposed change; and (3) the solicitation of feedback from Rackham doctoral programs. Input received through these feedback mechanisms will be made available to the Rackham Executive Board, which will advise the Rackham dean with respect to the proposed change. The Rackham dean will make a decision about the proposed change by the end of fall term 2021 and communicate the outcome to the Rackham community.
This proposal to end the use of the GRE in doctoral program admissions is based on multiple factors. First, many studies have shown that the GRE does not predict success in doctoral education, particularly with respect to degree completion and performance in research and scholarship. The strongest correlation of GRE scores is with first year grades, and that correlation is itself modest. GRE general test scores are also not well correlated with measures of performance in the activities of research and scholarship that are central to doctoral studies and critical to degree completion.
Second, given this lack of correlation between GRE general test scores and performance in doctoral programs, the use of the GRE in admissions decisions can extend the harmful legacies of unequal access to education on the basis of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Graduate admissions processes must bring open and equitable consideration to the brilliant heterogeneity of skills, experiences, knowledge, and potential of all applicants with ambitions to pursue the advanced training in research and scholarship that is representative of doctoral education.
Third, the submission of GRE scores creates unnecessary financial and logistical barriers that deter well-qualified students from applying for doctoral studies. The cost of the exam is significant; testing locations—especially internationally—are limited; and, access to exam preparation resources is not equitably distributed across the potential applicant pool.
Taken together, these factors support ending the use of the GRE general test in doctoral admissions at the University of Michigan. There is an additional advantage to acting in concert across all doctoral programs. By enacting this change, we will demonstrate to prospective students that the University of Michigan is broadly committed to evaluating applicants for doctoral admission based on the skills, experiences, knowledge, and potential that are instrumental to success in doctoral study, research, and scholarship; to offering equitable access to doctoral education; and to reducing barriers to pursue doctoral education at the University of Michigan.
A potential unintended consequence of enacting this change is that program admissions practices could increase their reliance on other problematic metrics, such as placing disproportionate value on the reputation of the applicant’s undergraduate institution. This possibility highlights the need to redouble efforts to support the ongoing investment of doctoral programs in holistic admissions practices. If this proposal is enacted, Rackham will provide support and funding to directly fulfill this need.
In addition, we acknowledge that any such change in doctoral admissions, no matter how well-intended, will generate short-term consequences for impacted programs. It is also critical that the holistic review practices that respond to this change themselves meet the goals for excellence and equity. To that end, Rackham will offer support to doctoral programs through (1) the specific timing of the change in the Rackham application, to occur in the academic year 2022-2023 admissions cycle so as to allow for planning, preparation, and implementation of lessons learned over the last two admissions cycles; (2) assistance to programs in determining and disseminating best practices that respond to the change, particularly for holistic admissions in programs with high application volume; and, (3) funding support in summer 2022 for graduate faculty to design holistic admission processes that fulfill the specific needs of their programs.
The proposal was announced at Rackham’s third annual State of the Graduate School event, which was held virtually on Wednesday, September 22, and also covered the launch of a new doctoral internship program and the creation of a standing committee on graduate student mental health and well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions
Motivation for Proposal
I appreciate that many programs no longer use the GRE general test scores for doctoral admissions. Why is Rackham proposing that no doctoral program at the University of Michigan use the GRE for purposes of admissions?
This proposal has been formulated because the three factors motivating it—the low correlation of these scores with success in doctoral studies; the resulting, potential perpetuation of inequity in access to doctoral education; and the cost to applicants—broadly apply across the academic disciplines of the Ph.D. programs at the University of Michigan. Moreover, there is value to acting in concert; it demonstrates our uniform commitment to achieve excellence by improving admissions practices and removing barriers to the accessibility of doctoral education at the University of Michigan.
We know that the goal of doctoral programs is to recruit excellent doctoral cohorts, and we are confident in their capacity to do so through holistic admissions practices that use factors that are indicative of success in the program. We believe that, when presented with the proposed change, the factors that motivate it, and the opportunity for feedback and discussion, doctoral programs will support this concerted step to change doctoral admissions at the University of Michigan. The implementation support we have developed and timing of the change will help programs address concerns they might have about changing their admissions practices.
What data and research did Rackham review in deciding to make the proposal?
The proposal was motivated by the three factors indicated. The research literature demonstrates the lack of strong correlation of GRE general test scores with success in doctoral studies. A broad range of disciplines are represented in this research. We examined the harmful legacies of unequal access to education on the basis of race, gender, and socioeconomic status in higher education, including as reflected in the demographics of doctoral enrollment at our own institution. We considered the financial and logistical barriers that taking the GRE represents to applicants. We reviewed preliminary application numbers for doctoral admissions during the most recent pandemic year. We, furthermore, took stock of the broad success doctoral programs experienced in recruiting last year, when GRE scores were not generally available.
Have other colleges and universities dropped the GRE?
A growing number of departments and graduate programs across the United States had ended GRE requirements for graduate admissions before the pandemic, and this trend has accelerated during the pandemic. This expanding cohort crosses disciplinary boundaries and includes those in the four divisions of Rackham—biological and health sciences, physical science and engineering, social sciences, as well as humanities and the arts. At the University of Michigan, the majority of Rackham programs have discontinued GRE general test requirements and more are considering it as a result of their experience with the pandemic. To our knowledge, University of Michigan would be the first research university to take this step for all doctoral programs.
What were the experiences of graduate programs that did not use GRE for admissions last year because of the pandemic disruption?
Many programs have reported that they were able to successfully recruit, admit, and enroll an excellent doctoral cohort despite GRE scores being unavailable for admissions decisions. However, some programs report challenges with the time and effort of implementing holistic admissions. Rackham will sustain and enhance mechanisms to support program implementation during the transition period. We will also time the change to begin with the Rackham application that will open in September 2022, to allow programs time to plan for implementation.
Why is this action being taken for doctoral admissions given that other programs, such as undergraduate and professional degrees—both at University of Michigan and elsewhere—use standardized test scores to varying degrees in their admissions processes?
The three motivating factors described have been generated based on research specific to doctoral education and the experience of doctoral admissions in Rackham programs. Undergraduate and professional degree programs may have different experiences, goals, admissions practices, costs, and constraints. Particularly salient for doctoral programs is that performance of research and scholarship is central to doctoral education and Ph.D. completion; success in these activities presents low correlation with GRE scores. Applicants to doctoral programs have an extensive record of advanced academic performance, research activity, and experiential learning accumulated through prior undergraduate training and professional experience that is available to inform faculty admissions decisions.
Why does the proposed change in collecting GRE scores not include Rackham master’s programs?
Rackham master’s programs have a range of educational goals that are distinct from those of doctoral programs, with the latter focused on the performance—under the mentorship of graduate faculty—of original research and scholarship resulting in a dissertation. At this time, more evaluation and discussion within the Rackham community are required to understand if this proposal might in the future be extended to Rackham master’s programs.
How many of the University of Michigan’s doctoral programs will be affected by the change? How many programs currently use the GRE in admissions?
All doctoral programs will be affected by the change if approved; GRE general test scores would no longer be used in any Ph.D. admission decision. Most programs do not currently use the GRE in such decisions. Many of the remainder discontinued use of the GRE in admissions during the past year due to the pandemic.
Some applicants, including individuals from diverse backgrounds that are underrepresented in graduate studies, score well on the GRE. These students might not be admitted to doctoral programs if their GRE scores are not reported. Isn’t this a motivation to keep the current practice for the use of the GRE in admissions?
GRE scores are not well correlated with success in doctoral studies, as demonstrated by research studies performed in a broad range of academic disciplines. Highly qualified applicants, even those scoring well on the GRE, can be better identified by factors more aligned with the academic and research pursuits of the discipline, as available, in the undergraduate course record, academic and personal statements, and research/professional experience, for example. Going forward, it will be critical for Rackham to redouble efforts to support the ongoing investment of doctoral programs in such holistic admissions practices. Looking for excellent applicants from among an expanded set of undergraduate institutions will be particularly important.
Process to Consider the Proposal
What has been done or will be done to seek feedback from the Rackham community, including graduate faculty, about the proposed change?
To formulate the proposal, during the academic year 2020–2021, Rackham engaged in discussion with graduate admissions committees through its admissions workshops, the chairs and directors of Rackham programs during its regular winter 2021 meeting, and the Rackham Executive Board. During fall 2021 term, the proposal will be available for discussion and comment through graduate faculty forums. Each Rackham doctoral program will have the opportunity to provide feedback. A mechanism for written comment is also available.
What is the process to decide the proposal?
We are currently collecting feedback from the Rackham community, including graduate faculty and the chairs and directors of Rackham programs. All members of the Rackham community are invited to share their thoughts via this form. This feedback will be provided to the Rackham Executive Board, which will advise the Rackham dean. The Rackham dean will decide whether to accept the proposal to remove collection of GRE general test scores on the Rackham application for doctoral programs. If so decided, the change will take effect for the Rackham admissions cycle opening in September 2022.