Where My Freshmen Hope to Attend College

Before a test last winter, I asked my ninth-graders to name between one and three colleges they hope to get into by their senior year of high school.

Then I estimated the mean GPA of accepted students at all the colleges mentioned in my survey results. If a student named more than one college, I found the average GPA of accepted applicants on each campus and averaged this mean to create a composite GPA – a target number for every student. Afterward I compared these values to the current college prospects of my freshmen students by subtracting the first-semester GPA of each student from the composite/target GPA I determined from their survey response.

Confusing? Pretend a student named Anthony responded to my survey by naming three schools – Howard, NYU, and Florida State. I found the average GPAs of admitted students at these colleges are 3.2, 3.6, and 3.76, respectively. I averaged them to get a composite score of 3.52 – an approximate “target GPA” for Anthony, as his cumulative GPA should fall somewhere near this value by the beginning of his senior year if he wants to be a competitive applicant at these schools. Unfortunately, Anthony’s current GPA is a 2.37. While this is above the 2.21 average for freshman at my high school (σ = 0.726), it still puts him 1.15 points away from his target score. If this doesn’t improve, it is highly unlikely that any of the three schools he named would actually select him from their applicant pool.

Discouragingly, our hypothetical “Anthony” is doing better than the average student in my sample.


Three out of every four students are at least one full point beneath their target GPA; the average student is almost 1.5 points off track.

One freshman with a 1.58 GPA hopes to get into Yale, Harvard, and MIT. Another with a 2.01 anticipates her enrollment at Georgetown. Yet another student (who scrawled “PRINCETON” across the entire page of his survey) has a cumulative GPA of 2.21 – over 1.6 points below the typical Tiger admit.

Grade point average does not speak holistically to the likelihood of an applicant’s success (for getting in or graduating). In fact, many schools look for other barometers when considering admission for underserved students, as GPA is not a consistently reliable predictor of success. But this number is a stronger explanatory variable for the admission of socioeconomically underrepresented students than other variables I had access to, such as standardized test scores; moreover, a GPA disparity greater than 0.5 starts to significantly decrease anyone’s chances of admission at most universities.

This simple exploration obviously raises a ton of questions. Like some of these:

  1. Why is this GPA gap so monumental?
  2. What do my students actually know about colleges and college admission?
  3. What signals can be inferred from the sample of schools that my students named?
  4. How does this “pre-application awareness” compare to that of students from a school that serves a more affluent community?
  5. What colleges do my students actually attend, and what are the typical outcomes of minority students at these institutions?

Over the next several posts, I’ll explore these questions and others. Stay tuned, and share your thoughts in the comments below!