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Q&A: What Do People Consider When Deciding on Graduate School?

March 14, 2023

ETS's Sugene Cho-Baker and Harrison Kell are the authors of an ETS Research Report, published in 2022, titled Factors Considered in Graduate School Decision-Making: Implications for Graduate School Application and Acceptance. In this Q&A, they talk about their interest in the topic and the impact they hope that it will have on assessment and education.

What motivated you to conduct the study?

Sugene Cho-Baker: Graduate school can be a good venue to enhance job prospects. But access to graduate education is limited for some groups. We wanted to explore what the barriers some groups are facing in terms of pursuing graduate education. We wanted to look into the motivational factors or barriers that can shape their efforts to pursue graduate education or their outcomes of pursuing graduate education. 

We know that there was a lot of research related to racial gaps, or gender gaps in undergraduate education, but there's not a lot of research in the graduate education space. And for this study, we wanted to learn more about the psychological mechanisms that could partially explain why we are seeing lack of diversity in graduate school enrollers. This was one way to explore that, to look at their barriers or motivational factors that keep them from or help them to pursue graduate education.

Harrison Kell: Potentially, the results could inform ways to do outreach to people from underrepresented groups. If we can understand why they're going to graduate school, it could be possible to target recruiting efforts to try and emphasize different aspects of the graduate experience to appeal to people from diverse groups to hopefully increase their chances of applying to and enrolling in graduate programs. 

What are the unique contributions of this study? What did it add to the body of knowledge in the field?

Sugene Cho Baker: When people are thinking about applying to graduate school, they go through some psychological processes. Some of these are related to just the decision about applying to graduate school in general, and some are steps they go through when deciding on a specific program. In our study, first, we empirically capture the relationship between sequential steps in these psychological processes. We also explore the demographic and socioeconomic differences of the psychological considerations in graduate school pursuits. We see a vast lack of research on this topic.

Granted, there is some previous work similar to ours, but we found that previous work focuses on those who were already accepted to graduate school and asked for retrospective information. So, you can't really tell what students are thinking about when they are planning to apply to grad school. We conducted a survey using those who had interest in applying; to be specific, GRE test takers. That allowed us to examine motivations when students were planning to apply, and associated outcomes at a later time point. That being said, we collected data from two time points: once when they were taking the GRE test, and later after they learned the outcomes of their graduate applications. 

Harrison Kell: The benefit of not being retrospective, by not looking only at people who are already in graduate school, is that we were able to capture data about people who weren't accepted – and also people who may have been accepted but chose not to enroll in a given program; these are people who are entirely missing from studies. So, we have a broader perspective and capture people who wanted to go to grad school at one point, but for whatever reason did not. 

Can you say a little bit more about who you asked your questions to and what you found?

Sugene Cho Baker: We collected surveys from GRE test takers who had taken the test in 2017 and had their scores sent to graduate programs, which means that they seemed committed and interested in graduate school. We found that Males and Asian test takers were more likely to consider applying to graduate school as an alternative to getting a job directly after graduating college, whereas African American and Hispanic test takers, and also test takers from a lower socioeconomic backgrounds, were more likely to be motivated to pursue graduate school in order to enhance job prospects. 

We found that those who consider graduate school for professional development tended to consider multiple aspects of a graduate program, including diversity or selectivity. Program diversity seems to be an important aspect for individuals who are actively engaged in their application process, which has not been found in previous studies. We found that those who consider diversity to be important when selecting schools tend to apply to a higher number of schools, to more programs. And that also was associated with a higher number of acceptances. Students who were more concerned about cost when selecting schools applied to fewer schools, and those applied to fewer schools tended to get accepted into a fewer number of them.

What are the practical implications of your findings?

Sugene Cho Baker: As I said, underrepresented groups and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were interested in graduate school to enhance job prospects. However, underrepresented students were also more likely to consider costs in selecting graduate programs, and people who considered cost also tended to send fewer applications and receive fewer acceptances. So, in student recruiting, in order to enhance the diversity of their student population, a school might either want to promote how they could help with costs, or develop more flexible programs to help working students. 

As I also mentioned, underrepresented groups were more likely to consider diversity. So that could mean that graduate programs can also use that information as a tool to attract more diverse population and their graduate student pool. 

Harrison Kell: If people from diverse groups, whom many graduate programs may be interested in having, are concerned about diversity given that many institutions seem to lack diversity in their campus, that creates a challenging sort of chicken and egg problem. Even if graduate programs don't yet currently have a diverse student body, these results suggest the importance of programs emphasizing their diversity policies in their in their materials and websites. 

What do we need to learn more about and why?

Sugene Cho Baker: The most important thing is replication. We need to see a replication of this research based on the population in general or those who are in specific stages in the application process. We also conducted our study before COVID, and a lot of things have changed now, so we might see different patterns. We also didn't, in our study, incorporate other institutional characteristics, such as selectivity. There are other factors that certainly play a big role in the application and admissions process, including but not limited to institutional characteristics, the strength of individuals’ application materials, and so on. If future research can explore them as well, we will be able to see more extensive and nuanced findings of how all these factors combined altogether contribute to success in graduate school.