How Much Do Grades Really Matter?

by Aaron Kaufman

At the age of 16, Richard Branson founded The Student magazine, which he distributed to his fellow classmates at Stowe School in England. Despite taking to entrepreneurship at such a young age, Branson struggled in school, barely graduating, and opted to forgo college.

Instead, he began selling records out of the nearby church that served as headquarters for his magazine. That operation would blossom into what we now know as Virgin Records.

After graduating from high school, Steve Jobs enrolled at Reed College in 1972. With his parents unable to afford tuition, Jobs dropped out after six months and enrolled in a number of trade courses, including a class on calligraphy. Soon thereafter, he founded Apple.

Jobs would later attribute much of his success to his unconventional life experience.

“If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts.”

These are but two examples of men who achieved remarkable success without a college diploma. There are, of course, many more.

While it stands to reason that the majority among us do not inherently possess the skills, abilities and vision to create the next Apple or Virgin Records without a formal university education, is it still possible to achieve greatness and underperform academically? Just how important is a stellar GPA to prospective employers?

Anecdotal examples can be used to support the arguments that grades matter a lot and don’t matter at all. But anecdotal evidence based on individual examples can hardly be applied to the masses. When you examine broader trends, the truth lies somewhere in between.

To College or Not to College

If there is one universal truth in the debate over whether or not grades really matter, it is that earning good grades in high school is important – if you plan to go to college.

Regarding individuals who dream of attending a particularly selective university or an Ivy League school, a high school GPA teetering closer to 4.0 than 3.0 is pretty much a prerequisite.

For those with college aspirations higher than their cumulative GPAs, there’s still hope. Many institutions and admissions directors take extracurricular activities and difficulty of courses into account.

“So when someone says they have a 3.3 GPA, I don’t know what a 3.3 means. I have to see the whole transcript,” said Illinois Wesleyan University Admissions Dean Tony Bankston to the Washington Post.

If your GPA isn’t grand but you volunteer at a soup kitchen every Sunday as part of your Eagle Scout project, you might receive an acceptance letter while someone with a GPA three points higher is rebuffed.

However, college isn’t for everyone.

With the US economy on the upswing, more high school students are choosing to enter the workforce following graduation rather than enrolling in college.

Slightly less than 66 percent of the class of 2013 enrolled in an institute for higher education last fall, the lowest total since 2006, according to data released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While much of the decline can be attributed to rising tuition costs, statistical evidence suggests that these lower enrollment figures are the result of an improving job market.

As it now stands, more individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not enrolled in high school or college are working than in years prior, and young people employed full-time in 2013 have seen their median wages rise faster than inflation for the first time since the Great Recession.

Still, individuals who choose to skip college generally suffer in the long run.

While college graduates experienced 8.3 percent unemployment in 2013, the unemployment rate for high school graduates between the ages of 16 and 24 with no college education faced an 18.9 percent unemployment rate. Worse, the unemployment rate for high school drop outs last October climbed to 27.9 percent.

More importantly, college graduates stand to earn significantly more than those with only a high school diploma.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, individuals between the ages of 25 and 34 who have received a college diploma earn 50 percent more than high school graduates when employed full-time. Moreover, college graduates can expect to earn more than an additional half a million dollars on average over the course of their careers.

Given these statistics, it stands to reason that earning a college degree is relatively important. But while earning high marks in grade school might be necessary to secure placement at a university, how important is it to get good grades in college?

Does Your GPA Define You?

In some cases, it matters a lot. In most cases, it matters very little.

If you’re planning to pursue a doctorate degree or attend law school, then good grades are essential. The median undergraduate GPAs for 2013 law school students enrolled at the 50 best programs in the country were all above 3.53, according to the US News and World Report.

However, for the majority of students, GPAs carry significantly less weight.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook for the Class of 2014, skill sets and experience often factor just as prominently as a GPA when hiring managers are reviewing a potential employee.

“Many employers require a GPA of 3.0 at a minimum… And, GPA can be a 'tie-breaker' if you and another candidate seem similarly qualified, with the higher GPA winning out,” reads the report.

“Assuming you’ve got the required skills to do the job and the GPA to meet their requirements, employers will also look for the 'soft' skills and attributes they value — the ability to work in a team, solve problems, and organize work. They also will look at your resume for evidence that you’ve got the 'right stuff.'"

Ultimately, grades are only part of the equation when considering one’s prospects for success. Exhibiting and properly showcasing strong leadership qualities, creativity and ingenuity can make up for lackluster marks.

Grades matter if you need them to matter, but that isn’t to say that you can’t achieve greatness if you’re not pulling a 4.0.

Jobs, Branson and countless others are testaments to that truth. For them, as for you, passion and drive prove the ultimate harbingers of success.

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