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GPA, GRE Scores as Stand-Alone Factors Inadequate for Evaluating Non-Traditional Students for Graduate School Admissions, MU Study Finds

Oct. 09, 2014

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst,, 573-882-6217

COLUMBIA, Mo. – As more people in the middle of their careers decide to return to school to further their education, the number of students applying to graduate school programs across the country has reached a record high in the past decade. With record numbers of potential students applying to their programs, many graduate school admissions evaluators are working to develop stronger admissions criteria that assure they are admitting students who will succeed academically. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have found that traditional measures such as Graduate Records Examinations (GRE) test scores and undergraduate grade point average (GPA) are not adequate for predicting success for non-traditional students who are returning to school after spending several years in the workforce.

“In general, it is fairly easy to predict the success of students continuing their education directly from their undergraduate programs; their undergraduate GPAs and GRE scores are pretty accurate in determining if they will succeed in graduate programs,” said Charles Menifield, professor in the MU Truman School of Public Affairs. “However, GPA and GRE scores do not predict the success of incoming students who are returning to school after spending time working in their careers as accurately as they do traditional students. We found that the success of those students depends much more on the skills they have developed and use every day in their current careers. If a graduate program requires a lot of writing, and a potential student hasn’t written anything in years in their current job, then they might struggle in school much more than someone who writes on a daily basis. The same can be said for any particular skill that is required by a graduate program.”

Menifield, along with Rajeev Darolia and Stephanie Potochnick, assistant professors in the MU Truman School of Public Affairs, examined admissions data, including undergraduate GPAs, GRE scores and undergraduate degree types, for students entering a Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program at a large southern university. The researchers then compared those numbers to the same students’ GPAs in the MPA program. Although students entering directly from undergraduate programs with above average undergraduate GPAs and GRE scores succeeded at a high rate, the researchers found a minimal relationship between undergraduate GPA and GRE scores and the success of mid-career, or “non-traditional,” students. The researchers also found that the type of undergraduate degrees earned by incoming students, regardless of whether they were traditional or non-traditional, did not make a difference in their level of success in graduate school.

“Whether an incoming student earned a bachelor’s degree in English, math or physics had no bearing on whether or not they would succeed in the MPA program,” Menifield said. “What makes the difference is the types of skills those students have developed. Even if a student has a degree in math, if they can write well and do simple statistical analysis, they have a good chance of succeeding. This is why it is important to better evaluate skills, particularly for non-traditional students. Even if non-traditional, or mid-career, students have undergraduate degrees such as English or political science, if they have been working in an unrelated field for several years, they may have lost important skills needed to succeed in an MPA program. Our findings show the need for admissions officers to better evaluate these types of skills, especially for non-traditional students.”

This study has been accepted for publication in the Education Policy Analysis Archives.