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Using High School GPA for College Placement

Research has shown that the accuracy of college placement decisions increases with use of more than one measure of student readiness. In particular, the use of high school achievement data, most commonly measured by overall GPA, has been shown to result in fewer misplacements and higher success rates in college-level courses than the use of traditional placement tests alone.[1] As a result, many systems and institutions have incorporated high school GPA into their multiple measures placement policy.

System and Campus Practice

System and campus policies on the use of high school GPA vary significantly with regard to how GPA is used in college placement decisions, including these three approaches:

  • As an exemption: While every student enrolling at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts currently takes the Accuplacer exam, the college is piloting the use of high school GPA to exempt some students from math placement based on test scores. Students who have graduated from high school in the last three years and received an overall 2.7 GPA or above can now place into college-level courses, regardless of their Accuplacer score.
  • In a hierarchy: At both Highline Community College in Washington and Davidson County Community College in North Carolina, high school GPA is the first recommended placement measure in a hierarchy. If a student either does not provide a high school transcript or does not qualify for college-level courses based on GPA, s/he can then submit past test scores, such as Smarter Balanced or AP scores (Highline) or ACT or SAT scores (Davidson).  Students can also choose to take a subject-specific college placement test.
  • As part of an index or formula: At College of Coastal Georgia and across the University System of Georgia, students are placed based on multiple measures indexes developed at the state level. For both math and English, index scores are calculated based on high school GPA, SAT or ACT and sometimes, in the absence of other measures, placement testing.

Lessons Learned

Institutions utilizing high school GPA may confront a number of challenges and decision-points.  We identify some of the most pressing issues below and provide examples of how institutions are responding.

  • Obtaining high school transcripts: For some systems and institutions, the use of high school GPA is complicated by the fact that students are not required to submit high school transcripts in order to enroll. These campuses can, therefore, only place students based on GPA if students provide transcripts in a timely manner. Campuses facing this dilemma may choose to accept unofficial copies of high school transcripts, or they can build partnerships with local feeder high schools to obtain easy access to student transcripts electronically. States and systems which do not require high school transcripts could also revise these policies to make transcripts a required element of application.
  • Addressing variation in public high schools: Outreach to local feeder schools can also help address concerns about variation in high school grading scales. Co-created transcript review rubrics for each feeder district can help to ensure that a higher-education institution understands what different high school grades in different courses mean and what grades are needed in each district to be considered college ready.
  • Providing resources and technology for transcript review: The manual review of a wide variety of high school transcripts is time consuming and requires new investments in staffing capacity. Electronic review using an e-transcript reader can substantially expedite this process. The North Carolina Community College System has been working in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to streamline accessibility of high school GPAs by automatically including it in a statewide repository of high school transcripts.
  • Determining the appropriate high school GPA to predict college readiness: While using GPA for college placement is becoming more common, there is no consensus in the field regarding which GPA cutoff indicates college readiness. At the institutions we visited, GPA thresholds for placement in college-level courses ranged from 2.4 to 3.0; stakeholders are actively examining data to determine whether these thresholds should be adjusted. For example, early data analysis led Middlesex Community College to stop placing students in college-level math based on high school GPAs between 2.4 and 2.7 after determining that students in that range were struggling in their college-level course work.
  • Supporting students in the “bubble”: Some campuses have found that students who fall below a certain college-readiness threshold score, but close to the college-ready range, may succeed in college-level course work with additional academic support. For example, Davidson County Community College is piloting the use of support labs for students placed in college-level courses based on a high school GPA from 2.6 and 2.99 due to lower course completion rates compared to students with a high school GPA of at least 3.0.


  1. Scott-Clayton, J., & Stacey, G. W. (2015). Improving the accuracy of remedial placement. New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.