Welcome to Race on Campus. This year, applications to Brown University’s public-health master’s program ballooned. Moreover, its share of Black and Hispanic applicants drastically increased. While the pandemic may have played a role in the gains, Brown took some recent measures that very likely helped, Vimal Patel reports.

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Rethinking Admissions

The pandemic has caused a surge of interest in public-health master’s programs. The rise is especially striking at Brown University. Applications to Brown’s small program more than doubled from last year to nearly 950, with the increase driven partly by Black and Latinx applicants.

The program still has plenty of work to do. Even with the large increases in Black and Latinx applicants — 187 percent and 137 percent, respectively, from the previous year — historically underserved groups account for only 15 percent of the total pool. Still, officials are hopeful they’re on a trajectory to a more diverse program.

Part of the increase could be attributed to broader forces that are making health professions a more attractive career path, especially for underserved communities. The pandemic has made clear the devastating toll of structural racism, with underserved communities feeling the effects of Covid-19 at far greater rates — in cases, deaths, and unemployment.

But Brown has taken a few steps recently that help explain why applications from underserved communities have climbed:

1. Going GRE optional

Brown made the Graduate Record Examination optional this year, partly because Covid-19 made the test harder to take, but also because of pre-pandemic worries about diversity. Amid concerns about the role the test played in slowing diversity efforts, a number of graduate programs in recent years have dropped the exam requirement. At Brown officials debated the test’s utility. They also asked a question, says Annie Gjelsvik, director of the program and an associate professor of epidemiology: What groups are even less likely to apply with a GRE requirement?

The test costs $205, and there are also time and opportunity costs of studying for the exam that could pose a barrier for low-income students, who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. For its part, Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the GRE, argues that disparities in test performance are a result of unequal education and broader educational inequities, not test bias.

The change has caused some complications. Brown’s program is heavy on quantitative skills, with a requirement that students in the program take two semesters of biostatistics and data analysis. GRE scores were a quick proxy for math skills. Not having them has forced admissions committee members to go through applications carefully in search of evidence of math fluency. Even so, Gjelsvik says, “We definitely think we’ve been able to get really amazing applicants with the GRE optional.”

Officials haven’t decided how to handle the GRE next year. They can bring back the requirement, leave it as optional, or eliminate it altogether.

2. Increasing visibility of diverse voices

Gjelsvik says the program is benefiting from the visibility of the new dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, Ashish K. Jha, a ubiquitous presence on cable networks and in newspapers breaking down the science and toll of the pandemic on underserved communities.

Gjelsvik says Jha is also a proponent of changing the culture of the school to make it more welcoming. In his September welcome message to students, Jha wrote: “We have to make sure that our own internal environment at our school fosters a sense of inclusion and belonging that is central to helping diverse voices thrive.”

3. Building relationships with HBCUs

Brown has had a longstanding partnership with Tougaloo College, in Mississippi, including a graduate teaching partnership and a program that allows students to earn a bachelor’s from Tougaloo and a public-health master’s from Brown. Gjelsvik says the master’s program is expanding its outreach to other HBCUs.

The centerpiece of that outreach is a new Health Equity Scholars program, which will cover up to full tuition and provide additional leadership training and mentorship. Five slots in the incoming Masters of Public Health cohort, expected to be about 90 students, are earmarked for Tougaloo graduates and current students, and five to seven are for graduates and current students from other historically Black colleges. Financial aid is a key factor when deciding on a program like Brown’s, which can cost $93,000 over two years.

Jha, the dean, has said the scholars program is part of Brown’s goal to “change the face of public-health leadership in America.”

Getting a more diverse applicant pool is part of the battle. The difficult part is happening now: Making offers to diverse applicants and persuading them to say yes. That rests on making admits comfortable that the program is inclusive and welcoming. “We have to be deserving of these students,” Gjelsvik says. “They have to be able to see it, and we have to show it.” — Vimal Patel

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