US geoscience programmes drop controversial admissions test

Anthony Wilson working with his mentors

Anthony Wilson (right) started a petition in April to make the graduate record examinations optional for the 2020–21 academic school year.Credit: Auliya Hartner/SOARS

Geoscience graduate programmes across the United States are increasingly dropping a controversial standardized test from their admissions requirements.

The graduate record examinations (GRE), which was introduced in 1949, aims to measure verbal and quantitative reasoning, analytical writing and critical thinking. In recent years, academic researchers and others have criticized the test, claiming that it unfairly weeds out capable students and restricts the flow of women and people from minority ethnic groups into the sciences.

Geosciences departments began to eliminate it as an admissions requirement last year. The trend, dubbed GeoGRExit, has gained impetus as programmes seek to maintain numbers of graduate applications in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But the geosciences have trailed behind other scientific disciplines. So far, more than 300 biology and biomedical graduate programmes have dropped the test, according to a list maintained by Joshua Hall, director of graduate admissions for the biological and biomedical sciences programme at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Some 62 US geosciences programmes no longer require applicants to submit GRE results, according to a database maintained by Sarah Ledford, an urban hydrologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Around half of those have dropped the requirement since 4 June, when the American Geophysical Union’s weekly news magazine, Eos, published an opinion piece calling for the test to be abandoned. It argued that eliminating the GRE could help to boost diversity in one of science’s most exclusive disciplines.

Call for change

In April, undergraduate student Anthony Wilson, who studies climate extremes at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, started a petition to make the GRE optional for the 2020–21 academic year. So far, it has secured 370 signatures. Wilson, who has received funding from the US National Science Foundation’s Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) programme to increase diversity in graduate studies, has opted against applying to PhD programmes that continue to require the GRE. “There is a general sentiment that people of colour are not interested in going into the geosciences,” says Wilson. “They are, but the programmes aren’t welcoming.”

Concerns are mounting that the GRE doesn’t test for the skills necessary to be a scientist, and is biased against women and people from minority ethnic groups. Critics say that the test doesn’t account for differences in how students are taught, how well they perform in test-taking or for differences in socioeconomic status that underpin academic preparation, including, for example, the ability to pay for test-prep courses. A 2018 study1 suggested that the GRE does not accurately predict a student’s success in graduate studies. And at US$205 to sit the test, its expense can pose a financial burden for disadvantaged students.

Holistic review

The department of atmospheric science at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins is one of dozens of programmes to drop the GRE in recent weeks. “I think the trend will continue,” says CSU climate scientist Eric Maloney. He says that his department is currently refining its admissions process around the idea of ‘holistic review’. Instead of basing decisions on GRE results, it will use a combination of factors, including the applicant’s academic preparation, scholarly potential, self-appraisal and long-term goals.

A number of student-led initiatives have pushed for GeoGRExit as part of ongoing efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the geosciences. Soil biogeochemistry PhD student Mariela Garcia Arredondo is a co-founder of the BRiDGE programme at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which invites scientists from minority ethnic groups to share their research and academic experiences. She says that maintaining the GRE requirement demonstrates an ignorance of existing socio-economic inequalities, as well as injustice made worse by COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of colour. But she hopes that graduate research programmes will continue to critically assess their metrics of admission and their methodologies to improve diversity. “The GRE isn’t a stopping point for evaluating barriers to entry,” she says.

Ledford agrees. She’s pleased that departments are dropping the GRE, but says that it is not enough: institutions need to address other barriers to diversity, such as requirements to take on unpaid internships. These schemes tend to shut out financially disadvantaged students who cannot afford to work for free, which disproportionately affects people from minority ethnic groups. “I don’t necessarily want those that dropped the GRE to pat themselves on the back,” Ledford says, “and think they fixed the inequities in the system.”

Nature 584, 157 (2020)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02181-z


  1. 1.

    Petersen, S. L., Erenrich, E. S., Levine, D. L., Vigoreaux, J. & Gile, K. PLoS ONE 13, e0206570 (2018).

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