Episode 132: High School Grade Inflation and College Admissions

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We are in the fourth week of our new series, Researching College Options, and we spent time in our last episode talking about the SAT and ACT and their almost-unavoidable continuing role in college applications and admissions. Yes, we said that there are plenty of test-optional and test-flexible colleges, but the SAT and ACT are not dead and buried yet and won’t be any time soon, if ever. That topic was just about as inevitable as college applications season gets into full swing as this week’s topic, which is the super-important high school grade point average (GPA).

Unfortunately, if your kid is about to be a senior, that high school GPA is pretty well locked in place at this point. A great fall semester might help a bit, but it won’t do much to change a GPA that is already based on six semesters of high school work and it won’t help at all if your kid is applying to a college under an Early Decision option and/or if your kid is applying to one or more colleges under an Early Action option by around November 1. Your kid’s current cumulative GPA is what it is, and now we have to help you and your kid think about how to deal with it.

So, here are a few paragraphs of background from our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students:

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture–a complete profile–of a student during the admissions process; nonetheless, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning–such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma–those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is really very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students who have both mediocre or low high school grades and mediocre or low college admission test scores, the college choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year college–or maybe a public four-year college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as good private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too. If you look at the average high school GPAs of entering freshmen at many public state flagship universities, they are extraordinarily high–a 3.7 or 3.8 is not unheard of. Why again? Because many, many of the brightest students in a state want to attend–and do attend–the public state flagship university, for all the reasons we [have discussed before at USACollegeChat].

Understanding how important high school grades are in the college admission game is the first step, but it is one you should have taken with your senior several years ago. Parents of younger high school students, heed this early warning: Help your kid understand that there is really no way to make up for crummy–or even lackluster–high school grades when it comes time to apply to colleges. There just isn’t.

So, let’s look again this week at what we call Step 13 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–that is, Step 13 of getting the information that your kid needs to make good choices about where to apply. Finding out all of the information we call for in Step 13 will give you an idea about how likely it is that your kid will be accepted by a college if he or she decides to apply. Of course, no one can say for sure whether your kid’s grades or admission test scores or extracurricular and community service activities or letters of recommendation will be appealing enough to get him or her admitted to a particular college. But several academic hurdles stand between your kid and one or more colleges on his or her Long List of College Options (LLCO), and high school GPA is one of those hurdles.

1. High School GPAs of College Candidates

So, we believe that your kid should find out the average high school GPA of admitted or enrolled freshmen in order to get a somewhat better grasp on whether he or she is likely to be admitted to that college. Here is what we wrote in our new book for kids like yours:

For many, but not all, colleges, you will be able to find the full distribution of high school GPAs and the average high school GPA of the students enrolled in the freshman class by looking under C11 and C12 of the common data set on the college’s website. [You will probably need to search for “common data set” on the college’s website, and you might find that the data sets are available for several years.] You also might find [high school grades] on a Class Profile sheet on the website, but you will not find this information on College Navigator [the online resource provided by the National Center for Education Statistics].

[The] average high school GPA will be on a 4-point scale. For example, a great college might show an average high school GPA of 3.8, meaning that its enrolled freshmen did extremely well in their high school courses.

As Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses have become increasingly popular and as more high schools have started to “weight” students’ grades in those courses (and sometimes in their own honors courses as well), there has been a rise in high school GPAs. In other words, when a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in a regular course, that A is worth a 4.0, or 4 points. But if a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in an Advanced Placement course, that A is worth a 5.0, or 5 points?that is, the grade has more “weight.”

Whether your high school does or does not weight course grades is something that should be part of the high school narrative profile that your school’s counselor will send off to colleges with your high school transcript. That profile is helpful to colleges in judging your GPA.

Nonetheless, one effect of all of this weighting of high school course grades appears to be that average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen are on the rise. We can tell this anecdotally by the fact that many colleges we profiled in our virtual college tour [back in Episodes 27 through 53 of USACollegeChat], including some not super-selective ones, post surprisingly high average GPAs well over a 3.5 for the incoming freshman class.

So, look carefully at the average high school GPAs that colleges are putting out there and see how yours compares. And, remember, some colleges will not provide one.

Well, that is a rather straightforward explanation of the high school GPA as one determinant in college admissions. As parents, it shouldn’t surprise you at all. But now let’s look at a newer explanation of that high school grade inflation, which we referred to, and its consequences.

2. The New Research on High School Grade Inflation

This explanation comes to you from a July article in Inside Higher Ed, which is, in its own words, “the leading digital media company serving the higher education space. Born digital in the 21st Century at the height of the Internet revolution, our publication has become the trusted, go-to source of online news, thought leadership, and opinion over the last decade.” This article, by Scott Jaschik, is appropriately titled “High School Grades: Higher and Higher.” Here is what Jaschik said about a new study, which was just released:

The study . . . will be a chapter in Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions, to be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press. The two authors of the study are Michael Hurwitz, senior director at the College Board, and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. . . .

The research is on students who take the SAT, and the study argues that these are representative of high school students who enroll in four-year colleges. The data come both from the Education Department and from surveys the College Board conducts of students who take the SAT.

A key finding is that, looking at cohorts of high school graduates who finished from 1998 to 2016, the average high school GPA went up from 3.27 to 3.38.

Notably, the gains were unequal among high schools, and the differences appear to favor students from wealthier (and whiter) high schools than average.

The study groups high schools by the magnitude of grade inflation. In the top decile of growth in average GPAs [meaning that the GPAs rose the most], black and Latino students made up only 22 percent of students on average, and only 32 percent of students were eligible for free lunch. But in the bottom decile of GPA growth [meaning that the GPAs rose the least], black and Latino enrollments were an average of 61 percent, and more than half of students were eligible for free lunch. The study finds that the average GPA at the high schools with the most grade inflation (top decile) has hit 3.56, while the average at places that haven’t seen much grade inflation (bottom decile, largely minority) is 3.14.

. . . [T]he study finds similar grade inflation in . . . weighted and unweighted grades. . . . (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

Well, that is quite a lot to process. It’s bad enough that grade inflation is taking place and skewing the way that everyone has to think about high school achievement. But it’s much worse to know that whiter and richer kids are disproportionately benefiting from what is already a lousy trend. You can draw your own conclusions about why that is happening. And here is one further surprising finding from the study:

. . . [T]he authors find that the proportion of students with A averages (including A-minus and A-plus) increased from 38.9 percent of the graduating class of 1998 to 47 percent of the graduating class of 2016. . . . (quoted from the article)

What? I was surprised–more like flabbergasted–to learn that almost 40 percent of students in the graduating class of 1998 had A averages (even considering that this was perhaps a somewhat select sample of that graduating class, like kids who took the SAT). Nonetheless, almost 40 percent seems high to me–or, more precisely, inflated already. The fact that the figure is now 47 percent is more arresting still. Do we really believe that almost half of the 2016 high school graduates–even half of the graduates who took the SAT–deserved A averages? That seems like a lot of kids to me.

But hold on a minute. Here is something that you might be thinking, something that would make these fantastic grades happy news, according to the article:

. . . [T]he authors acknowledge in their study [that] there could be a reason for the grade inflation that would make educators celebrate. What if students are smarter or are being better educated, and so are earning their better grades? The authors reject these possibilities, and cite SAT scores to do so. If students were learning more, their SATs should be going up, or at the very least remaining stable. But during the period studied, SAT averages (math and verbal, 1,600-point scale) fell from 1,026 to 1,002. . . . (quoted from the article)

Oh, so it’s just grade inflation after all. Here is the wrap-up and bottom line from the article:

While the authors said they didn’t think many educators would be surprised that grade inflation is present in high schools, they said it was important to look at the variation among high schools, a circumstance that has received less attention.

High schools “most prone to grade inflation are the resourced schools,” Lee said, “the ones with the highest level of affluence.” For those at high schools without resources, generally with lower GPAs, grade inflation elsewhere “puts them at a disadvantage in the college admissions process.” (quoted from the article)

So, this is one more instance of students from poorer communities–who are, as a matter of fact, disproportionately students of color–facing a tougher path to college. And this is one more instance of students from wealthier communities–who are, as a matter of fact, disproportionately white students–getting an undeserved break.

3. What Does It Mean for You

What does all this mean for your kid, regardless of how well-to-do or not-well-to-do your high school community is? It means that the race for good grades has gotten harder to win. Average high school GPAs of admitted freshmen are impressive–sometimes literally unbelievably impressive–even at colleges that are not in the top tier. If you have a senior at home and it is too late to improve his or her GPA, then you need to be sensible in looking at how your kid stacks up against the students who are being admitted to colleges on your kid’s Long List of College Options. If you have a younger kid at home, remind him or her every day just how important high school grades are–no matter what four-year college he or she is aiming for.

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Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

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This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

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Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some really good colleges—that do not put so high a priority, or indeed any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

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