School & District Management

Report: Tougher Classes Trump Grades in College Admissions

By Debra Viadero — January 22, 2010 1 min read
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When my daughter was getting ready to apply to colleges a few years ago, I attended one of those advice sessions for parents that was organized by our local high school. The guest speaker was an admissions officer from a private college. One of the parents at the session asked him: “Is it better for my child to take higher-level courses and get B’s or take easier courses and get straight A’s?”

His answer wasn’t much help. “Well,” he said, “obviously the best thing would be to take the harder courses and get A’s,” Well, yeah, in a perfect world. But, for many students, the choice really does come down to perfect grades vs. tougher courses.

Now comes a new study that actually does answer that parent’s question. Researchers at the Center for Public Education, which is a resource center housed at the National School Boards Association, drew on national data to figure out what kinds of credentials students need to get into a college that is considered to be “competitive” by the Barron’s Profile of American Colleges. What they found was that taking higher-level courses is more important than getting perfect grades.

Take an average student who scores a 21 on the ACT, has completed trigonometry and chemistry, and earned a 3.12 grade-point average. If, instead of stopping at trigonometry, that student had gone on to complete precalculus, his or her chances of getting into a competitive school would rise from 75 percent to 79 percent.

Lower- achieving applicants who complete trigonometry rather than stopping at Algebra II could boost their admission chances from 52 to 57 percent. That’s better odds than if those students simply had a 3.0 average in the lower-level courses, according to the report.

Unfortunately, minority students and students from low-income families tend to take fewer of those higher-level courses than white students do. But, minority students who take the same courses, earn the same grades, and score the same on their college-entrance exams as their white peers do have just as good a chance of getting into college, the report concludes.

And in case you were wondering, parents: A higher score on college entrance exams also beats out a higher GPA.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.