What makes a good college students? Looking at the admission criteria of universities can be insightful. Public universities in the United States basically just look for high school grades and standardized test results, with some adjustment background characteristics (race, high school characteristics), if any. European universities in the end just care about grades, in most cases that a student was above some level. And US private universities look at a large array of characteristics, with extracurricular activities and personal essays being of particular importance, grades in some cases being even ignored. While these different types of universities have obviously different motivations, ultimately they are looking for potential in students. So what determines academic success?
Martin Dooley, Abigail Payne and Leslie Robb use administrative data about a dozen entering cohorts in four Ontario universities to explain what makes students stay longer in tertiary education and have better college grades. It turns out that the high school grades are pretty much sufficient. At least for Canada, it is reassuring to see that individual performance matters more than where you are coming from. Of course, one could wonder whether all the other characteristics that private US schools consider would matter here. But this kind of data was presumably not available, as Ontario universities, all public, do not ask for such information during the application process. Also, there is no record in the study about individual standardized test results. Including those would only reinforce the results, but may have important policy implications: imagine they do not matter. Then it opens the door to grade inflation in high schools, and the grade signal gets diluted. And then admissions officers need to find something else to rely on, such as some of the characteristics that matter less.