Pandemic Takeaway: Time To Waive GRE Requirement for Public Health Degrees

A book, glasses, phone, pencil case, and laptop on a desk.

New research from Jess Millar

Graduate Student in Epidemiology, and Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics

As colleges and universities have wrestled with the question of what to do about standardized entrance exams during COVID-19, several public health programs have found a temporary solution by waiving the requirement, says a University of Michigan doctoral student. 

As a result, Jess Millar's research finds some programs are now taking a hard look at the value of the Graduate Record Exam. The graduate student in Epidemiology, and Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics, suggests in a preprint paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed that others should do the same. 

Public health programs in recent years have questioned whether the GRE is necessary or, in fact, may be a barrier to attracting qualified candidates to the growing field, especially as demands increase in the wake of the pandemic, Millar says. While a few programs have done away with the requirement permanently, the majority still have them in place.

Like so many undergraduate and graduate programs that require entrance exams, these programs found students were unable to take the GRE during the pandemic with test sites shut down and alternatives not accessible for all. As a result, many programs are instituting a temporary one-year GRE waiver for fall 2021 admissions. Currently, 76% of programs accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health offer a temporary or permanent waiver for at least some degrees. 

"The Graduate Record Exam used in applications has a number of standing issues including cost, bias and predictability, with additional barriers created by the pandemic," Millar said. "GRE waivers are a fairly new phenomena in public health programs and adoption is spreading fast, with an 800% increase in degrees/concentrations covered in the last 11 months." 

After testing sites shut down in March, several universities began to offer temporary GRE waivers for fall 2020 admissions. As of September, a list of nearly 1,200 majors from 150 public health programs had approved waivers for 2021. Millar says, however, very few programs allowed waivers for all of their graduate degrees. Fifteen percent of the Top 50 programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report, which includes U-M, waived all degrees either permanently or temporarily. One major least likely to have the GRE waived was biostatistics. 

"Going forward, we need to consider gaps in waivers during the pandemic and how this data can be used to shape our future use of the GRE," Millar said.

Millar says concerns with the GRE are costs for the test and scores sent to each school, currently $205 and $27, respectively; research showing bias in scores based on socioeconomic status, race and gender; and research showing the test is not a good predictor of success. 

An alternative, the At Home GRE, billed as a safe and convenient alternative to take the test at home did not address the concerns about accessibility. 

"The At Home GRE has created further barriers with the requirements for taking this test. Two of the biggest are needing a stable internet connection in a private room. My internet connection blips in and out throughout the day, which is enough to disqualify you," Millar said. "Even as some testing centers have begun to reopen in the U.S. and internationally, this hasn't been in all areas, and some centers have limited space and are already filled for the year.

"I think a lot of programs have been on the fence. I think the pandemic forced the issue to the forefront and temporary waivers were easier to implement as programs understood the additional barriers to the At Home GRE and the need to make accommodations during these times. It's also given programs an opportunity to test if the GRE makes a difference in their application process, as temporary waivers during a pandemic are very low stakes when so many programs are participating."