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Grad School Diversity Increases With Test Policy, New Programs

Faculty and students provided advice to new graduate students during an orientation panel discussion in late August.

Dennis Applewhite/Princeton University, Communications Office

Two years ago, 14 graduate departments decided to make the GRE test optional

Princeton University welcomed the most diverse graduate classes in the school’s history this academic year. Of the 675 incoming graduate students (436 doctoral, 239 master’s candidates), 24 percent are American minority students. Another 39 percent are international students representing 56 countries.

One factor that contributed to this outcome was the choice of some departments to stop applying for the GRE. Two years ago, 14 graduate departments decided to make the GRE test optional to encourage wider diversity. The initial data look promising, said Cole Crittenden*05, the acting dean of the Graduate School.

“We’ve seen that the 14 departments that did not request a GRE two years ago had a 58 percent increase in what we call domestic applicants from underrepresented minorities. [students who self- identify as Black/African American, Latino/Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander, and/or multiracial],” he said. “While the departments that didn’t change anything about their GRE requirements saw only a 2 percent year-over-year increase.”

The Graduate School also saw an increase in applications from international students during the same time period, despite COVID travel restrictions. Crittenden said the GRE “can be an obstacle for international applicants”.

Exam fairness concerns led some institutions to start eliminating GRE requirements in 2018. Many joined in 2020, including most Princeton University departments, due to hurdles to testing caused by the pandemic. For admission in Fall 2022, only six areas of study require the exam: Civil and Environmental Engineering, Economics, Finance, Politics, Population Studies, MPA School of Public and International Affairs and MPA/JD degree programmes.

Renita Miller, associate dean of the Graduate School of Access, Diversity and Inclusion, said it’s difficult to adopt the dropped GRE requirements for diversity indices because the pandemic has been a wild card. “However, it was great because there was a huge rise in the proportion of underrepresented minority candidates.”

Miller said the GRE is just one part of the admissions process. The Graduate Schools Admissions Officers begin by sitting down with each of its 42 departments to discuss candidates they would like to see for the graduate degrees offered by the school. While there are central requirements that all applicants must meet, other factors that determine admission vary by department.

Crittenden said that in 2020 and 21, the Graduate School saw a 13 percent increase in applicants compared to the previous year, even though three departments (sociology, population studies and religion) decided not to accept students due to the pandemic. Many other departments have decided to accept fewer students to allocate more resources to those already in the program.

In addition to testing requirements, Miller said, the graduate school has also seen positive results from recent programs created for underrepresented students. Graduate school representatives reach out to potential students from more than 50 institutions through the PhD program at Princeton University. Preview (P3), launched in 2018, to give those from underrepresented backgrounds an introduction to campus and support the application process. The Graduate School also conducts outreach and visits to HBCU and other institutions serving minority groups, and Princeton University offers a one-year pre-doctoral fellowship for some areas of study (started as a pilot program in 2019-20) helping students from underrepresented backgrounds prepare for a year Complete before the start of the Ph.D. a program.

For current students, there are mentoring opportunities through the Diversity Fellows Program, where graduate students are assigned to plan community-building events, and the Alumni Program, which provides seminars on moving to graduate school for first-year and pre-doctoral students, and pairs students with a dean or staff tutor . Miller said these programs help students apply, enter, and see success at university. She added that participants become ambassadors for the graduate school and often have positive feedback to share with potential future students.

Division leaders also think about diversity and the best ways to attract candidates. Betsy Levi Ballock, acting chair of the psychology department, said the psychology department, which was one of 14 departments that dropped the GRE in 2019, has seen a rise in the number of underrepresented international students. Ballock said the ministry has turned its attention to outreach, including through the P3 initiative. “We just want to keep encouraging a really big diversity of people to come forward.”

But not all departments experienced the same result. Blair Schoen, professor of earth sciences and director of graduate studies for the department, said the geosciences department, which also canceled the 2019 exam, saw an increase in diversity in year one but a return to normal levels in year two. He added that the department has also seen a decrease in the number of applicants overall and in applications from international students for admission in the fall of 2021, and he suspects this may be due to the pandemic and visa issues.

Schoen added that Earth sciences and other natural sciences have historically tended to have the least diversity statistics than other sciences. The department attempts to explore why this is, while at the same time considering new approaches to the admissions process to learn more about students.

“It’s hard to predict how well a student will do based on his request,” Schoen said. “So, we’re trying to think of ways to predict that more easily.”

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