The public narrative around college admissions tends to focus on very high-performing high schoolers, the ones who have weighted GPAs over 4.0, get 5s on their AP exams, and are deeply involved in their extracurriculars. But most students, by definition, do not fit this mold. What if your grades are in the B or C range? Lots of students—and parents—think they won’t be able to find a college that’s right for them if they aren’t performing near the top of their class. We’d like to take some time now to explain why that isn’t the case, and give some examples of the ways in which more average students can have rewarding, enriching college experiences that set them up for success in life.
The first thing to know is that your high school grades do not define you or your intelligence. American high schools, and indeed most secondary schools around the world, construct their curricula around an idealization of academic achievement, while often de-emphasizing many other aspects of growth and character that can’t be as easily defined by grades. Your personal qualities, including kindness, resourcefulness, or creativity, typically cannot be quantified. Everyone matures at a different rate. And a student’s home life and family experiences have an enormous impact on the extent to which they are able to focus on and apply themselves to schoolwork.
Furthermore, many high schools do not offer programs or classes that would otherwise give students the opportunity to express their strongest talents and skills. In public schools around the country, arts and language programs are among the first to be cut when budget shortfalls arise. Many schools do not offer computer programming courses, which are known to be a great entry point to science, math, and engineering for students who aren’t intrinsically drawn to those subjects.
There is a lot of pressure on high school students to excel in order to be admitted to a brand-name college. But which college you attend is not nearly as important as how well you perform academically and how well you take advantage of the opportunities presented once you get to college. That’s also why it’s so important to find a college that fits your needs and goals. Most students won’t be happy at a university like Harvard or Berkeley, because most students have needs that can’t be met by those institutions or goals that aren’t well suited to attending them.
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Colleges that admit students with B or C grade averages are still looking for the same general qualities as the most rejective and elite campuses: they want to know that you are thoughtful, kind, inquisitive, and interested in learning, and that you can both benefit from the education they offer and contribute to the campus’s social and intellectual environment. Your high school grades are only a partial indicator of your ability to succeed in these areas.
Although the media gives a lot of attention to elite colleges and universities like Stanford, UCLA, and MIT, these only represent a tiny fraction of all the institutions of higher education in the United States. In fact, there are nearly 4,000 in North America, with over 3,500 in the United States alone. More than 3,200 of those colleges cater to students in the B and C grade ranges, with admissions rates over 70%. And of the top 570 colleges, about 40% are accessible to students with B and C averages.
Some of the best schools for students with C averages to consider are the regional public universities in several states. Regional universities usually have Northern, Western, Eastern, or Southern in their names. Northern Arizona University and Eastern Washington University are good examples. Although many are commuter schools for students from their local catchment areas, many others are not. Regional public universities offer solid teaching programs, conduct research and offer research opportunities, and bring together large student bodies from diverse backgrounds. They are a great option for students who are okay with large classes, and specifically want a traditional, large-campus college experience. They also tend to be much more affordable.
Students with primarily B grades who want the larger university option can thrive at many of the excellent state flagship universities around the country. They offer abundant research opportunities and vibrant campuses with something for everyone, and often draw a more geographically diverse student population than regional public universities, though they can be quite a bit more expensive.
Private liberal arts schools are another excellent option. Although some well-known campuses are quite selective, many others are more achievable. These colleges are small, with a more personalized learning environment, tight-knit campus communities, and extensive academic support options. These campuses may be better suited for students who know they will need to rely on academic advising, tutoring, or other forms of academic support, or who want to live and study in a small campus community where they will find built-in social networks and numerous opportunities to form close relationships with their professors. Liberal arts colleges are more expensive, but they also tend to offer more financial aid options than public universities.
What about community college?
Two years at community college is a fantastic option for some students, and students go to community college for many different reasons. Classes are often much smaller than at larger research universities, so students have more opportunities to interact with their instructors, and may have a more personalized learning experience as a result. Some go because it’s more affordable, or because course schedules and degree timelines are more flexible. Others go because they aren’t ready to leave home. But community college isn’t right for everyone.
Although some universities allow transfers to apply in the second semester of freshman year, the UCs and CSUs only allow transfers to apply in the second year for admission as juniors. Many universities also require transfers to complete many requirements before they can be admitted to their chosen programs. It can therefore be difficult for students to transfer to four-year institutions on the timelines they’re aiming for when many community colleges have difficulty offering enough classes and sections for their large student bodies each semester. Investigating how easy or difficult it is to get required classes at your local community college is an important step to take before going down this path.
Because lots of community college students take on part time jobs while enrolled, they may take longer to complete all the courses required. As a result, it’s important to have a multi-year plan for completing courses and balancing work with school if your goal is to complete a Bachelor’s degree after starting your college education at a community college.
Lastly, community college can be psychologically and socially limiting for students who are fully ready to move away for their freshman year. In particular, it can be difficult to assimilate into the social circles of a four-year university when entering in the third year, since most students find their friends there as freshmen—though some four-year colleges provide excellent social support and opportunities to transfer students through their transfer programs. For students who would find it limiting to stay at home, going away to a good-fit four-year college after high school can be a great way to build confidence, experience independence, and grow intellectually and socially. And since there is a college for everyone, you can definitely find a campus that is right for you if you want to pursue this option.
What if I have a D average?
Unfortunately, options are more limited for students with D averages in high school. To reiterate, your grades do not measure your intelligence, capacity for growth, or future potential, but having a D average is often an indication that a student isn’t ready for a four-year college or university, for any number of reasons. A student might have an undiagnosed disability or illness, difficult family circumstances, delayed maturity, or any of a great many other factors impairing their preparedness for college. Such students can still succeed, but are best-served by the community college system, especially in states like California or New York with lots of well-integrated community college options. After another two years of learning and growth, these students often find themselves in circumstances much more conducive to thriving in a Bachelor’s degree program.
There is a college for everyone. With enough research and planning, you can find the school where you will fit in and thrive. For some, this process will start with some time at community college first. For others, it will require looking beyond the big-name colleges and universities and focusing on the needs and goals that are particular to you and your circumstances. Whether you’re looking for a sports-centric, gameday-celebrating large public university, or an intimate, supportive liberal arts college, or any other combination of institutional characteristics, there is a place for you. Capstone can help you get there. Reach out today for a free consultation.
Featured image (top): Guttswurrak Student Activities Center at Cal Poly Humboldt.
Photo by Shelley Enger