By Jack Tai, CEO and co-founder of OneClass.
Each year, millions of students will ask why it matters if they get an A or a C in calculus class. Still, students work hard to complete the required course with the best grade possible.
It's been drilled into the heads of all students: Doing well in school is important to future success. But how true is it? Are good grades statistically shown to precede career success, high earnings and entrepreneurial leadership?
An increasing number of research papers show the complicated relationship between academic achievement and career success. Here's what we know.
Does A Good GPA In College Lead To Career Success?
Earning a good grade is not only a measure of subject matter knowledge or intelligence. Instead, it's a composite of knowledge, skills and personality traits.
For example, a student with a good work ethic and discipline could help their grades because they turn in homework assignments on time and have good class attendance. Similarly, a student who is driven would be willing to do additional research for assignments or to seek out learning resources if they were struggling.
Because grades are a composite measurement of student performance, they can be a better predictor of success than other narrow measures, such as IQ.
A research paper co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found that personality is one of the most important predictors of success. Grades capture personality traits like perseverance, diligence and self-discipline, three helpful traits that can lead to success. On the other hand, IQ alone only accounts for 1% to 2% of income differences.
Even while there are links between academic and career success, there are still notable gaps. For example, grades don't measure leadership or comfort with risk, two traits that are essential to the highest echelon of business success. Additionally, a grade point average (GPA) isn't an indicator of emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills like networking. It'd be hard to go far in a career without these critical skills.
How Are Recent Graduates Affected By Their GPA?
Despite the limitations of how academic success can predict career success, college grades remain a key factor for a student's trajectory after college.
College grades are evaluated by the gatekeepers for many opportunities, including graduate school, internships, fellowships and job applications. GPA is also an easy way to sort candidates and identify likely prospects.
For college graduates in the class of 2019, 73% of potential employers have screened job candidates by GPA, according to the Job Outlook 2019 survey. Moreover, most industries had a GPA cutoff, and students needed at least a B average before their résumé was considered.
Recent graduates with a good GPA could be more likely to land a job interview or have a chance to prove their qualifications. Conversely, those with a lower GPA could be forced to shift their job search to smaller markets or smaller companies and to accept lower salaries.
Notably, early career struggles can have a long-term impact on career trajectory. Students who graduate during a recession can struggle to break free of underemployment and have lower earnings for about a decade after entering the workforce.
Students who earn good grades in college don't face the same downward pressure as those who scrape by, so top students may have a leg up when setting their path to career success.
Do Future Entrepreneurs Do Well In School?
Entrepreneurs, innovators and those in creative industries build their success by breaking the mold. In other words, the best entrepreneurs may not have turned their homework in on time. Classic examples of this phenomenon include Steve Jobs graduating high school with a 2.65 GPA or Bill Gates dropping out of college.
For decades, psychologists have noted the divergence between academic success and outcomes in creative careers. An analysis of the most creative architects found that even though the group had an overall B average, there was a wide range of grades among individual courses. In courses that these industry leaders found interesting, the creative students earned top grades. But “in courses that failed to strike their imagination, they were quite willing to do no work at all,” said the researchers (paywall).
The inverse correlation between grades and creativity was further demonstrated in a 2016 NYU study of 10,000 college students. Researchers found that as GPA went down, innovation tended to go up. This is because innovators tend to be intrinsically motivated. Unlike grades, which are an external validation, the most creative entrepreneurs could be focused on their own types of problem-solving.
How Is College GPA Related To Income Potential?
While good grades do offer an upward lift for recent graduates entering the job market, there is inconclusive evidence to connect college GPA to long-term earnings. However, there is a strong link between income and which school a student attends.
A study by the American Sociological Association found that after 10 years in the workforce, graduates of the most competitive colleges earn 19% more than those who graduate from colleges without a competitive admissions process.
Based on this, earning a B average at a top college could be more likely to result in better career earnings than an A average at a mediocre college.
This underscores that focus on a good GPA should not be limited to college. High school students with good grades could be accepted to more competitive colleges and could potentially see the related income boost.
As students in every grade level face the challenge of demonstrating their potential for success, modern academic resources can help students punch above their weight. For example, 90% of users of my company's note-sharing platform see a one-letter-grade increase, according to my company’s findings. One potential cause? Students who are seeking out learning resources are demonstrating academic grit, a solid predictor of future success.