Living & Learning: Better grades mean bigger paychecks

A UM and NSU study finds that mom, dad and teachers were all right: Your grades do matter — at least when it comes to your paycheck.

08/03/2014 2:55 PM

08/03/2014 5:30 PM

Think high school grades don’t matter? Think again.

Those who get higher grades in high school are more likely to graduate from college and likely to earn more money as young adults, according to a new study by a team from the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University.

The study, led by Michael French, director of the Health Economics Research Group in UM’s sociology department, found that those with higher high school GPAs made more money as young adults. According to the research, a one-point increase in high school GPA translated into 12 percent higher annual earnings for men and 14 percent higher annual earnings for women.

“On average, if you’re doing poorly in high school, you’re not going to do that well as an adult,” said French, a professor of health economics. The study is called “What You Do in High School Matters: The Effects of High School GPA on Educational Attainment and Labor Market Earnings in Adulthood.”

The study used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, which surveyed 10,000 young people. The researchers were able to control for family economic background, number of children and innate intelligence, as measured by a test. When all those factors were removed from the equation, high-school GPA still strongly affected earnings.

The study didn’t measure whether a higher GPA automatically led to a better job, but French theorized that the same qualities that bring higher grades also spell success in college and in the workplace.

“It could be that they’re more motivated, more disciplined and more focused on what they want to achieve,” he said.

The UM study was the first to link high school GPA with adult earnings, but its results were in line were previous studies looking at GPA and college performance.

“There is an increasing body of evidence that cumulative high school GPA is a much sturdier and reliable predictor than we would have guessed,” said William Hiss, retired director of admissions and financial aid at Bates College in Maine. Hiss, now principal investor for Defining Promise, did a study that found that high-school GPA was a more reliable indicator of college performance than were admission test scores.

Hiss believes that high-school GPA is a good predictor because it measures performance, self-discipline and willingness to work over a long period of time, four years. He also believes that high-school grades, in contrast to test scores, measure different types of intelligence since the subjects involved can range from calculus to art to physical education.

“What jumps out at me is the brutal, life-long punishment that lies ahead for students who have not done well in high school,” he said of French’s study.

French noted that there are always a few late-bloomers, who do poorly in high school and are successful later. There are also high school dropouts who go on to earn a lot of money. But, he says, those are the exception. “On average, we can say that those who do better in high school earn more as young adults,” he said.

His study also found that African American students, both male and female, reach higher levels of education than white students with the same GPA’s and family background. One reason could be that those students are more motivated and more determined to earn advanced degrees, he said.

Back in the mid-1990s, Karen Arnold did a study of 82 Illinois high school valedictorians and salutatorians 10 years after their graduation. She found that, while few had achieved eminence, most had done well.

“Grades matter not as a reward but as an indicator of the kinds of things that will make you successful in life,” said Arnold, an associate professor of higher education at Boston College. “If you can find a way to master doing what you’re supposed to do without it driving you crazy, that’s what you need in life.”

Her study found that the valedictorians had a very strong work ethic and enjoyed doing well. Many were active in religious organizations, athletics or other activities that kept them out of trouble. “You put all that together, and it’s a good package,” she said.

Though the subjects of that study are old enough to be sending their children to college, she believes that the findings would be the same today, if not stronger.

“They’re dutiful beyond belief,” she said of today’s young people, noting that they place great importance on getting into a good college and on achievement. “I’m seeing that they’re becoming more like valedictorians of the ’80s.”

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