How Grad Schools Woo Students Amid the Pandemic

The crisis is making colleges and graduate schools ease up on some of their traditional eligibility requirements.

Source Images Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

This year only, you may be able to skip the standardized tests that have long been a staple of grad school education.



Cara Rogers knows she’s not a typical MBA aspirant. The 40-year-old dance teacher first thought about enrolling in a business administration program last year because she’s planning to open a creative arts academy. Rogers has savings to help fund her education, and no children to worry about. But for months, the Syracuse, New York, native broke into a cold sweat at the thought of taking the GMAT.

Were her dreams worth the stress? Rogers wondered. Until, that is, last week, when a friend alerted her that she might not need to take the test at all. “Now, I might be ready to take the plunge,” she says, laughing.

The unlikely source of Rogers’ relief is the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 70,000 Americans, forced schools and universities to shut their campuses and upended life for almost everyone. But the crisis is also making colleges and graduate schools ease up on some of their traditional eligibility requirements. More than 50 colleges and universities have decided to not ask for ACT or SAT scores this year from undergraduate aspirants. For graduate programs, most major schools have traditionally required GRE or GMAT test scores — though some have joined a move away from standardized testing. Now, with many test centers still shut because of lockdowns or social distancing norms, several grad schools have waived that requirement for summer and fall 2020 applicants. This is paving the way for aspirants like Rogers who have been deterred by the tests.

Top B-schools like Wharton and Kellogg have made that shift. Kellogg has also extended its application deadline from early April to early June. University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business will accept undergraduate SAT or ACT scores in lieu of GMAT results as an indication of applicants’ academic abilities.

At my age, you think of your life, your career [as your test]. That’s what I should be graded on, not some standardized test.

Cara Rogers, MBA aspirant

The University of Alabama, the University of Southern Mississippi and Bowling Green State University are among other major schools that are waiving GRE and GMAT scores. Such moves could boost applications, catalyzed by another factor — the deepening economic recession, which the International Monetary Fund forecasts will be the worst since the Great Depression.

Texas A&M v Alabama

With test centers closed, several grad schools have waived GRE and GMAT requirements for summer and fall 2020 applicants.

Source Wesley Hitt/Getty

“Higher education enrollments have historically grown in an economic downturn as the job market is less promising as an alternative to education,” says Scott Friedman, a principal at Deloitte Consulting who specializes in the higher education industry.

Universities know they can’t take that for granted during the current crisis, when — on top of the economic challenges many families are facing — people around the world are grappling with unprecedented restrictions on movement. Appearing sensitive to those realities is critical for schools looking to attract students.

“We want to ensure that those who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree are not hindered by the inability to sit for the GRE and GMAT due to test center closures,” Karen Coats, dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern Mississippi, said in a statement in late March.

That’s particularly important for schools at a time when a traditionally vital segment of students — international aspirants — either might not apply or be able to pursue the programs they’ve been admitted to. The State Department suspended student visa applications in March, and it remains unclear when that process will resume. Experts believe many foreign students won’t return even once the United States starts reissuing visas. International students bring in $45 billion in revenue to American universities in a typical year. Without a chunk of that, schools will need to facilitate domestic students more than ever.

That doesn’t mean, though, it will be smooth sailing for those looking to get into grad school this year. For starters, not all schools are choosing to do away with the requirement for standardized test scores. Columbia Business School has extended its application deadline, but still requires test scores. “Please be aware that we will not be able to render a final decision until a standardized test score is submitted,” the school says on its website. The response of these schools to the crisis underscores why it’s unlikely that universities offering waivers this year will permanently dispense with GMAT or GRE scores.

Experts like Friedman expect student mobility within the U.S. to stay down this year even after lockdowns are lifted. Health and safety concerns, he suggests, might make many students pick schools close to home rather than ones across the country.

At major business schools, where tuition hovers around $145,000, many students are funded by the companies where they work. For Insead, the French- and Singapore-based university, such students comprise 15 percent of the class. With most companies struggling to stay afloat during the economic crisis, financial support for student employees is expected to decline, perhaps further driving down admissions.

Uncertainty over just when on-site classes will resume also lingers. “Students want to get back to face-to-face classes,” says Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Oxford. Most schools have indicated plans to return to campus in August, but a fresh surge in coronavirus cases and new restrictions could easily force a delay.

Still, top universities at least will see enough demand, says Marginson, especially once on-site classes resume. “The on-site experience is especially attractive in high-demand, high-prestige institutions,” he explains.

And the exemption from test scores at many universities offers a rare, one-time window for those like Rogers who are otherwise eager to go back to school. “At my age, you think of your life, your career, as the examination you’ve passed or failed,” she says. “That’s what I should be graded on, not some standardized test.” This year, her wish is coming true.

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