Why Employers Should Think Twice About Prioritizing GPA in Candidate Evaluations

There's more variance to this standard metric than you'd think.

What makes a candidate qualified for a specific position? Most hiring managers and recruiters look to factors like past experience, references, and assessments. But for entry-level hiring, GPA is often used as a hard filter and a tool to assess and compare candidates. According to the NACE 2019 Job Outlook Survey, 73% of employers planned to use GPA to screen candidates (the highest percentage since 2013), with the most common hard filters set at 3.0. 

On the surface, the quantitative nature of GPA suggests it would be a powerful, unbiased tool for comparison. But when taking a closer look, variances across universities and demographic groups make it an unreliable figure for comparison. While talent teams don’t need to fully retire the use of GPA as a candidate evaluation tool, they should be armed with some key facts before assigning outsized value to this metric. Here are three points to consider:

Studies show that students from low-income backgrounds and other underrepresented groups have lower GPAs. 

Talent acquisition teams that hope to find the best candidates for the job will need to ensure they are sourcing and interviewing a diverse slate of candidates. But certain recruiting methods can make it more difficult for students from low-income backgrounds – who are disproportionately people of color – to make it through the hiring process. One of these methods is the assessment of a candidate’s hire-ability based on their GPA. 

Existing studies and new data from RippleMatch* shows that students from low-income backgrounds have lower GPAs than students from higher income percentiles. 

On RippleMatch, the average GPAs of students who did not receive financial aid or are not eligible for the Pell Grant are both 3.48. The average GPAs of students who disclosed that they do receive some financial assistance are lower: 3.38 is the average GPA of students who receive financial aid, and 3.32 is the average GPA of students who are eligible the Pell Grant (which is typically awarded to students who come from a family income of $20,000 or less annually). 

The underlying reasons behind these GPA variances is what makes it an ineffective tool for truly measuring a student’s potential as a job candidate. For example: A federal analysis found that high schools with concentrated poverty are less likely to offer the classes and resources to help students get into college, and succeed if they get there. A low GPA in the first few semesters of college can influence a student’s overall GPA for the rest of their academic career, even if they achieve high marks as time goes on. Additionally, students from low-income backgrounds often need to work to support themselves, which means less time to focus on academics. A comprehensive report from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce found that students who work more than 15 hours a week earned lower grades than students who worked less than 15 hours, while students who worked the least hours tend to attain higher grades. 

Data from WayUp, an early-career recruiting platform, also uncovered variances between the GPAs of candidates by analyzing the GPA of their candidates who self-reported race and ethnicity data. In a blog post, WayUp founder & CEO Liz Wessel writes that the average GPAs of their Black, Hispanic & Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander candidates are significantly lower than their White & Asian candidates, which correlates to the distribution of lower-income students. RippleMatch candidate data on GPA by race & ethnicity followed a similar pattern.

Available data shows a clear link between low-income students and lower GPA, creating an uneven playing field for groups that are disproportionately low-income. However, outside of the influence of socioeconomic status, GPA can still be an unreliable narrative when comparing across academic institutions. 

*When students sign up for RippleMatch, they have the option to self-report demographic information such as race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status to help companies comply with EEO guidelines. Students who selected “prefer not to answer” were excluded from any of the data shown above.

Certain elite institutions have higher instances of grade inflation. 

Grade inflation has been a documented problem for decades, especially at elite and private institutions. Two years in a row, RippleMatch has released data on the top universities with the highest GPAs, and each year, Ivy League colleges and universities dominate the top spots.

While some universities, like Dartmouth and Yale, have recognized their grade inflation problem, there’s no clear path forward for translating the distribution of grades at various universities. That means a 3.5 GPA at one university may be above the school average, while the same GPA at an elite school is easier to attain. 

Recruiters that use GPA as a screening tool and compare candidates across universities should be aware of these discrepancies. Comparing the GPAs of students at the same universities can minimize some of the issues caused by grade inflation, but it makes it difficult to get an accurate comparison of students at a wide scope of universities. Talent teams with a diverse set of target schools should consider reducing the reliance on GPA in general to avoid inaccuracies when comparing students.

Research shows that using GPA as a main predictor of success isn’t all that accurate in the first place. 

One final reason to approach GPA assessments with caution – data from leading companies have found that GPA doesn’t tell the full story when predicting future success at a company. 

The most well-known research comes from Google, which has largely eliminated asking for GPA and test scores from candidates. While they still factor in those two data points when evaluating entry-level candidates, their data has found little correlation between the success of an employee and their academic track record. Instead, they favor a more holistic approach and place more importance on behavioral interviews and experience. 

Other companies, such as Goldman Sachs and Johnson & Johnson, believe that GPA plays a role in reflecting the success of a candidate, but that it doesn’t “tell the whole story.” J&J’s Head of Human Resources told Quartz in an interview that a minimum GPA cutoff of 3.0 can help screen for candidates that can ramp up faster, but didn’t suggest that recruiters select candidates with the highest GPAs. For practical application, recruiters might find it useful to treat a minimum GPA as just a baseline, but leave GPA comparisons between candidates out of their evaluations.

Given that entry-level candidates lack substantial work experience, there’s no perfect way to evaluate them during the hiring process. But with the variances that exist among the seemingly standard GPA figure, it’s worth questioning the status quo and reanalyzing this common hiring process to uncover better ways to holistically evaluate the best candidate for a role. 


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Global Head of University Recruiting & Programs

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University Recruiter

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