Making the Grade Only Gets You a Foot in Corporate Door

The bottom line for many employers is a candidate with at least a 3.0 GPA

After a sleepless night cramming for exams, every student has asked the question: Do grades really count toward later success?

The answer is yes - and no.

Most researchers are not very encouraging toward A-plus students. Landing your first job after college has little to do with grades, they say.

Yet Patrick Scheetz, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, says, "In recent years, the grade factor has gone up."

A recent survey of American corporations found that 3.0 is the magic number when it comes to grade-point averages. "Only 40 percent of companies are willing to hire college graduates with GPAs below 3.0," says Mr. Scheetz. "As corporations are hiring fewer people, grades have become more important. Six or seven years ago, employers were hiring very large numbers of college graduates, and grades were not as important."

The federal government also gives some hiring preferences to students with GPAs of 3.0 or above. Some high-performing students are even exempt from federal exams or placed at higher pay-grade levels.

Still, other researchers argue that corporations pay little or no attention to academic records.

"Employers want to know that you went to school, they want to know where you went to school, and how long you went to school," says Robert Zemsky, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "That seems to be enough to make the prediction of later success without getting into grades."

If two students with the same college major are competing for a job, will the student with better grades land the position? Not necessarily, says Barbara E. Santos, director of Liberal Arts Career Services at the University of Texas in Austin.

"Everything else being equal, the student with the higher GPA would probably get the interview," she says.

"However, things are never equal. There are always variances between candidates." A student with special skills or outstanding extracurricular activities may catch a recruiter's attention.

"Just having a spectacular GPA in and of itself is not enough," Ms. Santos says. "You can't be a brain in a jar."

Interpreting grades

But Santos agrees there is some correlation between college grades and a student's ability to get an on-campus interview with a company.

"Some companies coming to interview on campus set a GPA cutoff," she says. "So you must have a 3.0 [B] or above to be eligible for an interview. It's the quickest and easiest way for a recruiter to make a decision about which candidates to interview."

When companies don't pay attention to grades, it's often because they don't know how to interpret them. "There are no national guidelines for what a 4.0 grade-point average means," Santos says. "A 4.0 at UT-Austin may be very different from a 4.0 at another university."

The same thing is true for high-school transcripts. Students taking honor courses may have lower grades that do not reflect how much they actually learned. And standards vary dramatically from school to school. "Other countries have competitive national exams that make comparison possible," Mr. Zemsky says.

For the most part, American companies do not even consider academic records of high schoolers when making hiring decisions.

Small- and medium-size companies request a high school transcript only 15 percent of the time when hiring a high school graduate, according to research by John Bishop, a professor at Cornell University.

"Particularly for the kids who are not going to competitive colleges or not going to college at all, there is very little reward for studying hard," Professor Bishop says. "In European countries, the rewards for hard work are much more substantial."

In England, for example, graduates often carry evidence of their final grades around with them when searching for work.

Bishop would like to see American companies pay more attention to grades when hiring recent high school graduates.

But it is often difficult for companies to acquire transcripts quickly enough to make them useful.

A program in Delaware, known as Hire Education, is addressing this problem. Working through the Delaware Business/Industry/Education Alliance, every public-school district in the state has pledged to provide free transcripts within 48 hours of an employer's request. To make this possible, several large companies donated new fax machines to all the public high school guidance departments in the state.

"You still have to deal with the issue of standardizing courses," Bishop says. "But it is a modest step in the right direction to at least have employers paying attention to grades."

Good grades, good workers

Although his research shows little or no relationship between grades in high school and wages in the years immediately after high school, Bishop says the correlation does show up later.

"If you look around 10 years out of high school, there starts to be a much larger relationship," he comments.

"People who do well in high school are better workers and that's eventually discovered by observation on the job. Eventually the people who have done well in high school sort themselves into better jobs."

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