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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Applying to graduate school is an inequitable process

Bynum Hall, which houses the Office of Graduate School Admissions, is pictured on UNC's campus on Nov. 12.

I’m currently applying to 12 doctoral programs in computational biology that all have relatively low average acceptance rates. The process isn’t centralized like undergraduate admissions; it’s filling out a dozen different applications, personal statements and supplementary questions. 

The work piles up rapidly — as well as each application fee. My credit card has been drained 10 separate times — each time with fees anywhere from $90 to $115. 

When applying to multiple schools, these fees make the application process inequitable for students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

In an email to The Daily Tar Heel, UNC Media Relations said the University's application fees are charged to offset the cost of handling applications and to provide funds for recruiting students. 

“Fees will be charged only for limited, dedicated purposes and shall not be used to defray the costs of general academic and administrative operations of campuses, including academic programs and faculty and administrative salaries and benefits," the UNC System Policy Manual reads. "Consistent with the above citation, the Board will make every effort to keep fees for students as low as possible while providing the revenues needed to support the purposes for which the fees are charged."

At UNC, there are opportunities to apply for a fee waiver, but only applicants who qualify can apply. 

This includes people who are full-time permanent UNC employees, active duty military personnel and U.S. citizens who meet need-based eligibility, among others. On top of the stringent qualification requirements, the application for a fee waiver takes up to several days to be reviewed, meaning it must be sent in well before the deadline. 

Application fee change recommendations are sent to the Board of Governors as part of the annual tuition and fee approval process. Media Relations said the Board of Governors will make an effort to keep fees low, and no increases were permitted for 2021-2022, but it is still subject to increases in years in the future.

Nationally, for professional programs like law or medical school, the cost of applying spikes significantly. For medical admissions, it costs $170 to submit the application to the first school, and $42 for each additional school. In addition, there are fees for transcript submission, submitting secondary applications to each school, travel and overnight accommodations for interviews and MCAT preparation materials. 

In addition to application fees, for many graduate programs, standardized testing also is a financial burden.

The MCAT costs $320, the LSAT costs $200 and the GRE costs $205 just to register. With some applicants choosing to take exams more than once, standardized testing has been proven to be a significant barrier to marginalized and disadvantaged communities pursuing higher education.

For the majority of these programs, standardized test scores are still required and used as a factor in admissions.

"This is primarily because the admissions team for the MS program find GRE scores to be useful in predicting student success for a course-based graduate program such as our MS program," said Nilay Tanik Argon, a professor in the Department of Statistics and Operations Research. "We are planning to reconsider this requirement for the MS program in the upcoming years."

In contrast, UNC's Biological and Biomedical Science Program eliminated the GRE testing requirement. 

“The cost of the GRE was indeed part of our conversations around keeping it as a requirement for admissions to the BBSP umbrella at UNC,” said Jean Cook, a professor of Biochemistry & Biophysics, and of Pharmacology at UNC who also serves as senior advisor for graduate education. 

Additionally, a variety of studies have proven academic environments face the same persistent inequalities in society — and to change that, it’s imperative evaluation metrics for people applying and involved in academic change to dismantle privilege. Items like the GRE were statistically found to be more beneficial to students from higher socioeconomic statuses and to not predict completion of doctoral degrees as expected.

To combat inequalities in graduate admissions and academia as whole, it’s imperative to re-evaluate the cost of applying for degrees in higher education, and making pointed decisions to make the process more equitable for all those involved.


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