High school grades are an important and widely used measure of the achievement of students in secondary education. As such, they are important to the admissions decisions of selective admissions colleges. They are also important to financial aid decisions in those institutions that practice preferential aid packaging – those colleges that offer more grant aid and less loans to financially needy students that the institution finds especially attractive and wants to enroll. In some states, high school grades determine eligibility for state merit-based scholarship programs. But not all types of students get the best grades required for selective college admission, financial aid packages weighted with scholarships instead of loans, and access to state-financed merit based scholarship assistance. Our analysis of data finds that:
– Females are more likely than males to get the best high school grades.
– Students from families with incomes of more than $70,000 per year are more likely to get good grades than are students from families with incomes below $39,000 per year.
– Students from families with college-educated parents are more likely to get the best grades than are students whose parents have a high school education or less.
In this analysis, we examine the relationship between high school grades and background characteristics of college freshmen. What we find is that high school grades are awarded neither uniformly nor randomly across different groups of high school students who enroll in college. Some groups of college freshmen are more likely to report good grades than are other students. Because of the differences in high school grade distribution across different groups of college freshmen, different groups face hurdles of different heights in college admission and financial aid. Some policy and decision makers and program administrators may be comfortable with these differences. Others may be struggling to level the playing field at the critical transition between high school and college. Regardless of one’s position on these differences, we believe it important that those making decisions regarding the educational opportunities made available to young people be aware of the differential impact of their decisions on different groups of students. Admissions and financial aid decisions favoring students with grades of B or better distinctly favor females over males, Asians and whites over blacks and Chicanos, those from wealthy families over those from poor families, those with college educated parents over those whose parents do not have college educations, those with two parents over those whose parents do not live together or one or both are dead and those attending more academically selective institutions over those attending less selective institutions. We recommend that students taking coursework to prepare for college take 4 years of English, 3 years each of mathematics, science and social studies, and 1/2 year of computer science. Subsequent studies have shown an increase in graduating high school seniors completing the new curriculum from 13 percent in 2002 to 47 percent by 2014. These data have been reported by gender, race/ ethnicity, urbanicity, control of school and parental educational attainment. More recently we updated our previous analysis of academic core course taking of those college-bound high school seniors who take the ACT Assessment. Between 2004 and 2012 the proportion completing this curriculum increased from 38 to 59 percent. Again, we reported these data by gender, race/ethnicity and family income. The survey data are limited to first-time, full-time college freshmen. They best describe freshmen starting out in 4-year colleges and universities. They are less complete when describing community college enrollments because these institutions typically enroll much older undergraduates than do 4-year colleges and universities. But even here, these data provide useful comparative information on an important part of the community college student body as well. The analyses summarized here describe the grades of college freshmen grouped in terms of several background variables:
– Parental income
– Parental education
– Parental status
In addition, we describe very generally the grade profiles of freshmen entering higher education institutions by control, type and academic selectivity. The results of this analysis should not surprise those within higher education whose responsibilities cover admission, financial aid and student support services to students. What is not clear, however, is that public policy makers are aware of this information. Does the growth in high school grade averages among college freshmen reflect greater achievement? The SAT and ACT data on high school seniors who took these tests are not confirming in this regard. The renorming of the ACT Assessment makes comparisons over this span of time difficult, but here too average ACT composite scores appear to have declined between 2002 and 2012. Roughly speaking, under the more recent scoring system, the ACT composite score appears to have declined from about 21.9 to 20.8. The most obvious explanation for the disparity between rising grades and declining college admissions test scores is substantial high school grade inflation over the last 30 years. Over the 30 year period the difference between males and females on high school achievement as measured by grade averages has narrowed substantially. High school grade averages are also strongly related to the educational attainment of the freshman’s father and mother. The proportion of college freshmen with grade averages of B or better was lowest – at less than 60 percent – where the father and mother had grammar school educations or less. About 79 percent of the freshmen whose parents had at least some post baccalaureate education reported grade averages of B or better in 2012. This pattern becomes even more pronounced when we focus on the proportion of freshmen reporting grades of A or better. College freshmen who come from 2-parent families report higher grade averages than do freshmen from other parental situations. Where the parents lived together, 74.6 percent reported grade averages of B or better. Where the parents did not live together, 64.5 percent reported B or better grades. Where one or both parents were dead, 60.3 percent had B or better grade averages. When both parents lived together, freshmen were nearly twice as likely as freshmen from other families to report high school grade averages of A- or higher. The socio-economic sorting processes that begin before K-12 education are further accentuated by the sorting processes of college admission and financial aid. Students with the best grade averages do not distribute themselves randomly across higher education institutions. They are concentrated in some types of institutions and mixed with students with lesser records of academic achievement from high school in other types of institutions. At one end of this spectrum, 98 percent of all freshmen entering highly selective private universities report that they had grade averages of B or better. At the other end of the spectrum, 49 percent of those entering public black colleges had accumulated B or better grade averages in high school. Obviously, the most academically selective colleges and universities are likely to attract the greatest concentrations of freshmen with the strongest grades. But beyond academic selectivity, universities – both public and private -attract freshmen with the strongest high school achievement records. And generally 2-year colleges attract freshmen with the most diverse records of high school grades. We have also examined changes in the proportion of college freshmen with grades of B or better by institutional control, type and academic selectivity. We have chosen the period between 2002 and 2012 during which to measure this change primarily because of the sharp cutbacks in federal and state investment in higher educational opportunity during this period. The institutions that gained the most in proportion of freshmen with grades of B or better were black colleges – both private and public – and institutions of medium academic selectivity. During this same period the largest losers were 2-year colleges, both public and private. A possible interpretation of this shift is that some students with grade averages of B or better shifted their enrollments from 2-year colleges to 4-year colleges with medium academic selectivity criteria.
This analysis has sought to illustrate the differential effects of admissions and financial aid decisions on students with varying levels of high school grades. Admissions and financial aid policies that favor students with strong records of high school achievement also favor students from some backgrounds more than others. Significantly, these are background characteristics that students are born with. They are not characteristics over which students have personal control and may therefore be held accountable for in admissions and financial aid policy and decisions. Using B or better grades as a reference for such decisions:
– Females are favored over males.
– Asians and whites are favored over blacks, Chicanos, American Indians and Puerto Ricans.
– Students with college-educated parents are favored over other students whose parents have a high school education or less.
– Students from 2-parent families are favored over students living with one parent or where one or both parents are dead.
– Students from families with incomes over $70,000 per year are favored over students from families with lesser incomes.
Now that you know this, are you still comfortable with admissions and financial aid decisions based on high school achievement?