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Making the grade still matters — at least in college admissions

University of Maryland administrators discussed a student's application last year as they went through the undergraduate admissions process. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a best-selling author, recently reminded all of us who didn’t leave college with perfect grades not to worry: Academic excellence, he wrote, is not a strong predictor of career excellence. His column seemed to appear everywhere in my social media feeds over the past week, especially from parents rightly concerned that their children are engaged in a never-ending arms race for better grades and more activities, and in doing so, driving themselves to higher levels of anxiety.

While grades ultimately don’t matter in getting a job, Grant’s message doesn’t apply to students involved in another one of life’s selection processes: college admissions.

A recent survey of college admissions officers found that nothing carries more weight in deciding which applicants to accept than high school grades. Why? Research shows that a student’s high school grade-point average is consistently a better predictor than test scores of a student’s likely performance in college. It’s not just about whether those students will get good grades in college. Good grades get students to stay in school and earn a diploma. Grades might not matter to getting a job, but a diploma certainly does.

Grades matter in college admissions because they are a signal of a student’s effort, grit and determination. In recent weeks, I’ve been sitting with admissions officers at several colleges as part of research for a book I’m writing. With limited time to review applications, they look closely at grades, particularly in college preparatory classes. Unlike ACT or SAT scores, which are a snapshot of performance on a particular day, grades are a portrait of a student over several years.

That said, colleges are not consistent in how they assess high school grades in admissions decisions. Many are worried about grade inflation in high school. What I found is that some colleges mostly ignore freshman grades on the assumption that the transition from eighth grade is difficult. Others recalculate GPAs, removing “specials” such as music, physical education and art. They try to balance GPAs across high schools, especially as schools give extra points to students who take honors or advanced placement courses.

But it’s not only applications with all A’s that rise to the top of a pile in an admissions office. Officers look for students who challenge themselves by taking courses outside academic areas where they are strongest. They want applicants who are interested in studying engineering to also have taken a full slate of English courses in high school, even if they struggled at times. An upward trajectory in grades helps weaker applicants; poor grades in senior year could sink their chances of getting in.

While grades play a critical role in getting into college, as Grant noted, they play little to no role at the other end — when college graduates are looking for jobs. For the most part, earning a degree or other credential signals that an applicant is ready for a job, with that signal growing stronger the more selective the school on the résumé is.

But a study released this month by Ithaka S+R, a higher-education consulting and research organization, found that even degrees by themselves matter less in hiring these days. The study found that an increasing number of job candidates “are assessed directly on their job-related competencies through various technology-assisted means, allowing employers to supplement — and sometimes forego — the traditional criteria” of a degree. The study cited a 2017 survey of more than 800 human resources officers, which found that two-thirds are using assessment tests as part of the hiring process.

For generations, higher education had no trouble winning the trust of employers to provide verified evidence of a person’s abilities. After all, many colleges and universities had centuries of experience and name recognition behind them. That trust is deteriorating, however, in some degrees and at some colleges as employers question the readiness of graduates to navigate the modern workplace and economy. What is clear is that as employers find other ways to assess potential employees, colleges are no longer the only gatekeepers proving someone’s worth in the job market.

As new ways emerge to assess college graduates on the job market, so, too, will new methods for assessing whether high school students are ready for college. Already, fewer colleges are using standardized test scores in admissions. Admissions officers from some 200 selective institutions have endorsed a movement to prize character and ethics in making admissions decisions. But for now, students shouldn’t think they can slack off in high school because employers don’t care about grades. To get a job in this economy, they still need to jump through the hoop of college, and that’s where grades still matter.