Scott Penner was a model high school student. With a grade 12 average of 93 per cent, and with math and science as his strongest subjects, he was poised to be a successful engineering student. That is, until he started at the University of Manitoba. Penner was not expecting to glide through university, though he “was still expecting to do fairly well.” Even by these lowered standards, his first year was less than encouraging. Not only was he receiving an uncharacteristic assortment of Bs and Cs, he failed first-year calculus, a prerequisite to continue on in engineering. “It was a bit of a shock,” he says.
Penner is not alone. The vast majority of students see their grades fall, often dramatically, once they get to university. What is sometimes called “grade shock” can have devastating consequences for students, as they struggle to cope with the fact that they are no longer at the top of the class.
Within the course of a semester dreams can be easily whisked away. “The business program or engineering program that they thought they were going to pursue [is] not an option for them anymore,” says Brock University economist Felice Martinello who recently co-authored a study on the changes in grades between high school and first-year university.
There are also financial repercussions. In 2008, Maclean’s surveyed the rate at which students who received entrance scholarships kept the requisite grades to maintain their funding going into second year. At York University, where fully 60 per cent of incoming students received an entrance scholarship, only 10 per cent kept their funding. At McMaster the rate was 21 per cent. At Ryerson, seven per cent.
As grades have long been known to predict whether students will complete their program, significant grade drops may be contributing to dropout rates, suggesting that students coming in, even with an A+ average, may become discouraged and simply give up. In fact, the best evidence we have suggests that it is the highest achieving students that are most at risk for being disappointed in university.
In his paper, Martinello, and coauthor Ross Finnie, find–consistent with previous research–that on average students see a 10-point drop in their grades once they are in university. Using data from Statistics Canada’s Youth In Transition Survey, the study concludes that nearly half of all students surveyed saw their marks decline by one letter grade. About 23 per cent saw their grades plummet by two letters or more. Only 2.5 per cent of students saw their grades improve, and about a quarter maintained averages consistent with their high school marks.
But, what is novel about Finnie and Martinello’s paper, and pertinent for high school academic stars like Penner, is that the economists determined that “the highest achieving group (in high school) has the largest decrease in grades.” Students entering university with a 90 per cent or higher experienced a drop of 11.9 points. Students with high school marks in the 60-79 per cent range had only a 4.4-point drop. Prior studies tended to assume that even with a drop, that there was a linear relationship between high school and university grades. Finnie and Martinello’s research challenges that assumption.
“You’d think that maybe, oh, it’s the weaker students, that once they go to university, they’re really going to get killed, but it turns out that’s it’s the 90 plus group,” Martinello says.
Recent trends suggest that the challenges of grade shock are only going to become more widespread. That’s because students with average entering grades, in the B or B+ range, are slowly disappearing. And when all, or most, of the students come in with an A or A+ average, many will have nowhere to go but down.
At the University of British Columbia average entrance grades across the university are expected to be 87 per cent this year, a two per cent increase from last year, and up from 80 per cent ten years ago, and 70 per cent twenty years ago. Andrew Arida, UBC’s associate director of enrolment says higher entering grades are simply a matter of supply and demand. “Because students are presenting higher grades, we’ve had to raise our admission averages to avoid over-enrolling,” he explains.
Only a few years ago, UBC was admitting around 15 per cent of students with grades below 80. That number is dwindling fast. Although Arida didn’t have final figures for the fall, he says only a “small number” of students will get in with less than an A. Students entering the two largest faculties, science and arts, will need a minimum high school average of 86 and 85 per cent respectively.
Similarly, the University of Waterloo increased by seven per cent this year over last, the number of entering students with an average of at least 85 per cent.
Schools like Waterloo and UBC, already considered prestigious, are joining an elite club of universities that are inaccessible to all but the highest achieving students. With an average entering grade of 88.9 per cent, Queen’s University rarely admits students with less than an A average. At McGill, the median average entrance grade for Canadian students is 92 per cent.
Even schools not normally recognized as overly selective shut their doors to all but a handful of students with a B or B+ average. For example, at the University of Saskatchewan, approximately 68 per cent of incoming students in 2009 had at least an 80 average, with more than a quarter holding marks of 90 or higher.
Other universities have made a more conscious effort to increase their coterie of A students. In a bid to shed its “Last Chance U” moniker, Carleton University began steadily increasing entrance requirements in the mid 1990s. In 1993, the average entering grade was about 72 per cent. In 2009, it was nearly 82 per cent.
That many, if not most, of today’s students will take a substantial hit to their grade point averages is in one respect an entirely logical conclusion. Students are graded on their performance in and of itself, but also in relation to their peers. Having a larger pool of stronger students means that they will be competing more often with others like themselves, and less so against students who are not as academically inclined.
However, there is also the problem of grade inflation at the high school level that suggests it is not just the fact that the bell curve shifts, but that students have been given an inaccurate assessment of their performance. As one measure, more than 60 per cent of Ontario high school students graduate as Ontario Scholars—students with at least an 80 per cent average. That figure has been steadily increasing for decades. In the early 1980s, Ontario Scholars accounted for 40 per cent of graduates.
Some universities, like Waterloo, address grade inflation by adjusting their admission standards to account for the high school where a student graduated, in recognition that an A from one school is not equivalent to an A at another school. At UBC, entering students are asked to submit a personal profile along with their application to help distinguish between students. “I think there is more compression at the high end in high school than there is in university,” Arida says.
The convergence of high school marks at the high end of the grading scale has been blamed, in part, on pressure from university-bound students hoping to get an edge on the competition. But, slack grading is hardly a favour with long-term benefits. “If you had a better, more accurate, signal from those high school grades, you’d get better decision making,” Martinello says.
At universities that have a long-standing reputation for being particularly selective, however, students may be better prepared to deal with the inevitable challenge of lower grades. At Queen’s, 95 per cent of students continue into second year, and 90 per cent graduate, among the highest rates in the country. “I think it would be fair to say that students expect the courses to be more challenging at university and that the same effort will not yield the same results as it did in high school,” Queen’s associate registrar Stuart Pinchin stated via email.
Other students are not so prepared.“The skill that [students] are lacking is the ability to adjust, that they’ve never failed a course before and they’ve never had a low grade before,” Martinello says. “They just don’t know how to cope with it.”
Even so, Arida says students should recognize that they are not doing as poorly as they might think. “A student who gets 90s in high school, who gets high 70s and low 80s in university, is doing quite well.”
As for Penner, he was determined to not let his poor performance in first year threaten his plans. He repeated, and passed, first-year calculus, allowing him to continue in bio-systems engineering. He has improved his study habits by more consciously learning to take advice. He has some advice of his own. “Listen to your profs.”
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.