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Why high school grades don’t matter as much as you might think

May 17, 2013

Many post-secondary institutions in both Canada and the United States rely heavily on high school students to fill their first year classes. In many provinces students go directly from high school to college or university upon graduation.   As a result, educational researchers have relied heavily on the high school average or high school GPA as the critical measure for predicting the future success for a student, since it is the most commonly recorded indicator of previous academic achievement for most students. So why aren’t high school grades that helpful at RRC?

Is there a relationship between high school grades and student success at RRC?

The Research and Planning department has spent some time looking at whether high school grades can be used to predict success, following in the footsteps of many Canadian and U.S. researchers of post-secondary education. This includes combining high school course outcomes to create an overall average, as well as using self-reported grade 12 high school averages from the Paths to Success survey. The analysis below is based on self-reported Paths to Success data.


In the most recent analysis, a linear relationship between grades and success was found, as students with a grade 12 average of less than 60% were less likely to complete their program than students who had an average of more than 60%. Indeed, students with an average of 80% or higher were more likely to complete their program. But, most students had a grade 12 average between 60% and 80%, and the grade is not particularly helpful in these cases.

Moreover, there was a paradox for both weaker and stronger students – while students with an average of less than 60% were less likely to complete their program, their chances were close to 50-50, so enough of them did complete their program that turning away these students would be doing them a disservice. At the other end of the spectrum, for students with a grade 12 average of 80% or higher, there were enough students that do not finish their program that you wouldn’t want to have made a judgment on grades alone.

Why don’t grades tell us that much?

First, most of our students aren’t coming to the College directly from high school. In a previous RRC blog on first-year student demographics, the Paths to Success survey showed that only 13% of students come to Red River College directly from high school.

Second, most students (65%) have been away from school for a year or more – they have been out working. So life experiences have helped to “season” these students. They may have forgotten much of what they learned but they have learned a level of self-discipline. They likely approach being at RRC differently than they would have had they attended earlier.


Third, many students (35%) have attended university previously, and that too seems to change how students cope with the RRC experience.


Indeed, when we have looked at high school grades controlling for post high school experience (work or university), the advantage of having a higher high school average disappears.

So what happens when you take into account additional education and work experience – the grade effect disappears. You can see in the figure below that for students that have attended university or who have been working their high school grades do not provide additional information.


It would seem then that high school grades only matter for students coming right out of high school. And in this case, the cut-off grade is very high – 80% or more. That’s a GPA requirement level than would be required to enter many university programs.

Summing up

The educational experience at the College is different –it’s applied. Many people learn better when they understand why they are learning something, and how it might be used. Students come to the College because we offer an educational experience that relates to employment. The why and how are apparent. The applied focus becomes a powerful compensator.

Perhaps there are other ways we can build on the applied focus to help students succeed.