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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

ETS exploits soon-to-be grads' 'real world' fears; presents grad school as 'backup plan'

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), administers of the SAT, GRE, AP and TOEFL exams, recently released a new advertisement. It features a picture of a 20-something-year-old hip African-American woman sitting by a tree with three thought bubbles protruding from her bald head. In them lie three taglines: "Start an online company," "Join the Peace Corps," "Go for my masters." All are clearly meant to answer the question, "Not sure what you're doing next?" which lines the top of the advertisement.

The ad is part of a larger ETS campaign -- launched online and at about a hundred universities nationwide -- that encourages college students to consider the GRE and graduate studies as part of their "backup" plan.

Students are indeed looking at graduate school at a higher rate than in the past -- whether a result of the ad, the current job market or some other factor.

"Ten years ago, the question wasn't 'where are you going to college?' It was 'are you going to college?'" junior Brendan Johannsen said. "Now college is like the equivalent of the high school diploma 20 years ago. Graduating from a school like Tufts helps you but it doesn't provide you with the skill set necessary to stand out."

"There are jobs out there but down the road, a [graduate] degree is necessary," said senior Michael Mandell, who plans to attend graduate school. "If you don't have further training, someone will pass you up."

This trend reaches far beyond Medford, though. According to a study conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools, applications to U.S. graduate programs shot up by eight percent from 2006 to 2007. Students across the country are worried that in a tight job market, a B.A. might not prove as useful as it once was and often, they seem to be right.

"Increasingly, a master's degree is desired by employers for entry-level professional positions," said Dr. Tom Atkinson, associate dean of the Purdue University Graduate School, one of the ETS's target schools. "Getting a master's degree is a way that some students ... set themselves apart."

Still, many have reservations about the perceived benefits of graduate school attendance. With a monopoly on standardized testing, the ETS surely has something to gain from an application spike to graduate programs, especially those that require the completion of its $140 GRE.

"Doesn't that sounds like a 'buy my toy' campaign?" Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeanne Dillon asked.

Moreover, skeptics think that the ads exploit anxieties already prevalent among the soon-to-be-graduates.

This certainly holds true at the University of Texas, El Paso, an ETS campaign hotspot, where many of the students are first-generation college graduates and struggle with the high cost of the GREs, according to Yvonne Lopez, the school's assistant dean for graduate student services.

"[Applicants] are already insecure about taking the test," she said. "Saying 'you need to take this test to secure a good future' only sets more insecurities."

Largely, that is what universities hope to avoid.

"We would never encourage students to enroll in a graduate program to avoid a tough economy," Director of Career Services Jean Papalia said. "It's a significant investment of time, energy and finances and should be based on a compelling desire to acquire a certain degree in order to enter a specific profession or reach a specific goal. Graduate school is not about exploring."

But it is clear that the trend is just the opposite, and while many vehemently oppose the thought of higher education as a "safety net," its appeal is not baseless. Students are having difficulties starting their careers with B.A.s only, according to both Lopez and Atkinson, in which case the ETS's encouragement could actually be more of a comfort than a setback.

While questionable motives plague the GRE campaign's reputation, its ads tap into a legitimate generational fear.

The idea of graduate school may not be appealing to those "at 93 credits and counting," who "still don't know what [they] want to do," as suggests. But it may appeal to those who have searched for a job suitable to their credentials and failed, as has been the case for many recent college graduates.

One argument, though, is impervious to even the organization's staunchest critics: "You really can't go wrong with encouraging education," Mandell said.

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