Population Change and Lifecourse

Policy Brief #4 - November 2011

What Determines Success in University


We examine persistence and success using a rich administrative data set that links information on individual students at four Ontario universities with information on the high school performance of individual students, the high school that the student attended, and the neighbourhood in which the student grew up.

These data sets provide many relevant factors, a large number of observations, and the actual measures (not self-reports) of such academic outcomes as grade averages, credits and degrees completed.


Four Ontario universities provided student-level information. The combined undergraduate enrolments at these universities accounts for 28% of the total at Ontario universities over our sample period.

Our data set is limited to students who entered a full time university degree program directly from an Ontario high school in September. Such students comprise over 90% of all entering undergraduate students at Ontario universities.

Two universities provided data for entering cohorts in September of 1994 through 2004. The entering dates were 1994 through 2005 for the third school and 1999 through 2006 for the fourth school.

Basic Findings

In the full paper, we report estimates of a regression model of each of our four outcomes (measures shown in Box 1) that contain all of the variables (shown in Boxes 2, 3, and 4) plus interactions between high school grades and gender, program, neighbourhood average income and high school performance on the standardized Grade 9 math assessment.

The finding that stands out is the importance of the student’s high school grade average.

In addition, the explanatory power of the high school grade average greatly dominates that of other variables listed above such as university program, gender, neighbourhood average income, and average high school performance on Grade 9 standardized tests.

These latter variables have coefficients that are often statistically significant but usually very small in magnitude. These findings were true of students entering all four major programs: Arts, Science, Business and Engineering.

Illustrations of Basic Findings

Figure 1. University GPA After 2 Years
These four figures show the relationship between high school grade averages and university outcomes by neighbourhood average equivalent income tercile. In Figure 1, students in the lowest (less than 75) and highest (greater than 95) high school grade categories have university grade averages that differ by about 25 percentage points.

Figure 2. University Credits After 2 YearsAt the end of two years, students in the lowest high school grade category in Figure 2 have earned 2.4 fewer credits (almost a half a year less) than those in the highest high school grade category. In contrast in Figures 1 and 2, the differences between students from low income and high income neighbourhoods in university grades are 1 percentage point or less and the differences in credits completed are 0.2 credits or less for each high school grade category.

Figure 3. Departures in First 2 Years

In Figure 3, students in the lowest high school grade category have a departure rate that is almost 21 percentage points higher than those in the highest high school grade category.

Figure 4. Percent With Degree Within 6 YearsIn Figure 4, the students in the lowest high school grade category have a degree completion rate that is 36 percentage points lower than those in the highest high school grade category.

However, the differences in departure rates between low- and high-income students in Figure 3 are at most 1.5 percentage points and the differences in degree completion rates in Figure 4 are at most 3 percentage points.

Other Findings

The same is true in figures (see full paper) that show the relationship between high school grade averages and university outcomes by gender, by academic program or by the average performance of the student’s high school on the academic Grade 9 standardized math test. Differences in university outcomes by gender, program or high school performance on standardized tests are very small and very much dominated by differences in the students’ high school grade averages.

Policy Implications

Two important, albeit tentative, policy conclusions can be drawn from our findings.

First, there is a positive message regarding the educational system in Ontario.

Of course, it might be that a different set of neighbourhood and high school variables would have much better explanatory power and yield different conclusions. Our estimates with fixed effect models for both high schools and neighbourhoods, however, do not indicate that this would be the case.

Second, students with the lowest high school grades in our sample have a very low probability of completing a degree at these four universities and are much less likely to do so than students with slightly better grades. This provides a clear note of caution regarding a policy of improving access to the university system by reducing admission averages.

About the Policy Brief

This Policy Brief is based on Understanding the Determinants of Persistence and Academic Success in University: An Exploration of Data from Four Ontario Universities, a report prepared by Martin D. Dooley, A. Abigail Payne, A. Leslie Robb, McMaster University, for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. A summary and a full report are available at the HEQCO website.

For more information contact Martin D. Dooley (dooley@mcmaster.ca). The Population Change and Lifecourse Strategic Knowledge Cluster provided funding for preparation of data for the study.