High School Grades and College Success: Bridging the Gap

Understanding the Relationship between High School Grades and College Success

High school grades and the college success rate are intimately intertwined. In 1967(1) the Ford Foundation sought to determine the actual relationship that appeared to exist between high school grades and the potential for future college success. The results were not very encouraging for those with bad high school grades. It appeared that students whose grades were lacking had difficulty blossoming in college initially, and throughout the years of study.

In fact, the study showed that the College Board scores were by far less reliable than the actual high school grades when it came to determine who was most likely to succeed. This understanding is echoed by a 1996 to 1999 study by the University of Berkeley.(2) This study suggested that standardized test scores are far too influenced by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds as opposed to work ethic and ability to perform consistently to standards. This study outlines that high school grades are a fairer and more equitable predictor of future success.

How to Get into College with Bad Grades

Since high school grades and future college success are so connected, the would-be student with bad grades is at an understandable disadvantage. Can they still get into school or are the doors closed? Actually, there are ways to get into college, even with bad grades.

  • Begin an academic career in community college. Enrollment prerequisites are a lot less rigorous than in most four-year colleges, and the high school graduate who earned bad grades due to goofing off or merely being bored can now become a disciplined community college student. After two years, and hopefully a track record of regimented studying and good grades, there is little that stands in the way of transferring to a four-year college or university. In fact, some community colleges actually have transfer agreements with respected local universities!
  • Consider trade school. A trade school prepares the high school graduate who, in spite of their best efforts, just could not get decent grades to learn in-demand skills needed for a lucrative career. Core classes are usually hands-on and academics, such as math or English, do not factor into the curriculum as much. Although much is said about the importance of a college degree, having marketable skills that are in high demand can sometimes trump the four-year degree.
  • Prove college readiness with life experience. Volunteer at an organization that is closely related to a desired college major. For example, a future social worker might show a track record of homeless shelter volunteerism, while a future business major might point to his involvement with the local junior chamber of commerce. These extracurricular activities that show a strong interest at a young age, which may help overcome bias against some bad high school grades.

Remember that only you know if your high school grades and future college success are truly connected. Do not let an admissions counselor talk you out of pursuing a college degree just because you do not fit the traditional mold.


  1. Time Magazine. “Students: Predicting College Success” at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,836749,00.html
  2. University of Berkeley. “Validity of High-School Grades in Predicting Student Success Beyond the Freshman Year: High-School Record vs. Standardized Tests as Indicators of Four-Year College Outcomes” at http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/publications.php?id=265