"We're not about destiny. Those academic skills and even those academic behavioral skills are all learnable, teachable and therefore addressable," said Jon Erickson, ACT vice president for educational services.
Once the student is in college, said Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the operations division and SAT program of the College Board, their college grades become a better predictor of success than their prior records.
Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, a group advocating test fairness, views the rigor of high school work as the most important predictor, followed by high school grades.
He said standardized tests "can't capture motivation, curiosity, the ability to work with others, self-discipline."
However, he said grades "tend to capture an aspect of that."
A strong math background is particularly important, according to a 2006 federal study of high school transcripts. It found that taking just one course in high school above Algebra 2 can double the odds a student will earn a bachelor's degree.
High school strategies
Here are some strategies students can try in high school to increase their odds of success in first year-college courses, according to research by the ACT, which produces a college entrance exam:
• Take a core curriculum. (4 years of English and 3 years each of math, science and social studies).
• Take additional social studies courses.
• Take higher-level math.
• Take higher-level science.
• Be motivated.
Mr. Erickson said many people know someone who did well in college despite poor test scores or high school performance.
That was the story of someone he met recently on an airplane. "A lot of other variables kicked in. In this instance, this person got into a great advising and study skills support program at their institution. They also decided to apply themselves," he said.
No one would have predicted college success using the high school grades of Jason Smida, of Carnegie, who graduated near the bottom of his class at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Coraopolis in 2000 and didn't take a college entrance exam. He didn't do well at Community College of Allegheny County, either.
But once he had the motivation -- the birth of a son and a desire to live life without regrets -- he was on the track to college success.
Now 28, Mr. Smida graduated from Carlow University last year, landed a job with a major accounting firm and is working on a master's degree. He earned a 3.78 grade point average even though he held a full-time job while he went to school full-time.
"Self-determination was my big thing, finally realizing what I wanted to do in life," he said. "Motivation for me has been key for everything ... Don't let grades be the deciding factor of your success or not."
Some more traditional college students also list a variety of factors other than grades or college entrance exam scores that are important for success.
"I think the most important thing is surrounding yourself with people who want to be successful. All of my friends are really involved," said Katie Fritsch, 21, of Hampton, a junior majoring in graphic design at Seton Hill University.
Ms. Fritsch is student government president and carries a 3.93 grade point average.
Before getting to college, she said, she learned good study habits, which have come in handy.
She doesn't remember her SAT or ACT scores. She said many factors-- attendance, getting to know faculty members and participation -- go into being a good college student, things she said are not "a direct connection to how you do on a test."
Stephen Wittuck, 20, of Erie, a junior majoring in business communication at Seton Hill, said he believes his extracurricular activities in high school helped him to learn to manage his time, an important skill in college.
He also said his high school, Mercyhurst Academy, required him to write two- to five-page papers, so that didn't intimidate him when he got to college.
Mr. Wittuck, whose grade point average is about 3.4, is a student ambassador and has a job in the theater workshop.
Chelsea Nugent, 19, of McCandless, a sophomore majoring in business management and marketing at Slippery Rock University, said a key for her was getting help with her dyslexia.
She views the abilities to network and find necessary resources as the most important predictors of success.
Ms. Nugent, who has a 3.2 GPA, has two jobs outside the university and is vice president of education for the Association of Residence Hall Students. She was active in high school as well, so she has learned to manage her time.
Some people make their living predicting which students will be successful, such as Betsy Porter, director of admissions and financial aid at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Porter and her staff don't stake their -- or the university's -- reputation on just one predictor of success.
Instead, they take a "holistic" approach, looking at a wide variety of indicators: high school grades, SAT or ACT scores, an essay, recommendations, activities and just about any supporting information the applicant wants to submit.
But Dr. Porter believes the most important predictor is a student's academic success in college preparatory courses in high school, something she said shows a student's "motivation to pursue a level of academic rigor."
At Washington & Jefferson College, submitting college entrance exam scores is optional.
W&J ran a pilot program for applicants who had marginal test scores but otherwise looked as if they had potential to succeed. The candidates then were interviewed before a decision was made.
"The students who were admitted under this plan came in just fine and included some who did extraordinarily well," said Alton Newell, vice president for enrollment at W&J. Dr. Newell said he believes the best predictor of success is the quality of the high school curriculum and the student's performance in it.
"We know for a fact there are some kids whose likelihood of performing well at W&J is not reflected in their standardized testing," he said.
Anne Skleder, dean of Chatham College for Women at Chatham University, added two other factors: college fit and connection.
She said that students need to choose a college they want to attend and find connections with peers, faculty and staff once they get there.
When students transfer for reasons other than a particular major, a move by parents or a sport, Dr. Skleder said, "It's usually the lack of connection. Something didn't click."
Some students, she said, may not be ready for college when they graduate from high school.
"It's not their time," she said, recalling one student who did poorly, left to work for a year and then returned and earned good grades.