Understanding the Determinants of Persistence and Academic Success in University: An Exploration of Data from Four Ontario Universities

Research Summary:

Academic Success in High School Increases Chances of Graduating University

While significant emphasis in Canada has been placed on studying the barriers for access to university, much less has been known about the factors contributing to a student’s success and completion once enrolled, also known as their academic persistence. A new study commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that the most powerful indicator of persistence and academic success is the strength of a student’s high school grades.

Understanding the Determinants of Persistence and Academic Success in University: An Exploration of Data from Four Ontario Universities  finds that characteristics such as gender and chosen program are significantly weaker indicators of academic success and persistence. 

Project Description

The report was based on a rich supply of data collected from the administrative student records of four Ontario universities between 1994 and 2006, as well as application data from the Ontario University Application Centre (OUAC), neighbourhood characteristics from Census data collected in 1996, 2001 and 2006, and high school characteristics provided by the Ontario Ministry of Education from 2000 through 2003.

To evaluate a student’s persistence or academic success the report focused on cumulative grade averages and credits completed after two years of study, departures after first or second year and degrees completed within six years.


Throughout the relatively long period of data collection, the results among all measures for success and persistence have been generally consistent. The study finds that larger socio-economic issues are also weak predictors of success. While existing research suggests students from low-income neighbourhoods are less likely to apply to university, it has little impact on their performance or likelihood to graduate once enrolled. 

Much still needs to be known about what lies behind the significant impact of high school grades on university success. The study suggests a number of the factors discussed above such as income and parental education could be common to success at both the high school and university level.

A recent HEQCO publication,  Access to Postsecondary Education: How Ontario Compares , details the strong connection between parental education and access to postsecondary education (PSE), however those effects do not appear to influence academic success and persistence once enrolled in university.

​The report was written by Martin D. Dooley, A. Abigail Payne and A. Leslie Robb from McMaster University.