(USA Today) -- Parents and their high school students are fascinated by the grade point average and what it means in college admissions, but the truth is that a number of colleges and universities are not all that interested.
Admissions officers at some of the nation's most selective colleges, who are now sending acceptance letters for their fall freshman classes, say they barely look at an applicant's GPA.
"It's meaningless," says Greg Roberts, admissions dean at the University of Virginia, ranked as the top public university in this year's 150 Best Value Colleges, published by The Princeton Review and based on academics and affordability.
"It's artificial," says Jim Bock, admissions dean at Swarthmore College, the top private college in The Princeton Review's Best Value rankings. So unimportant is the GPA that Swarthmore doesn't bother calculating it for guidebook publishers.
Some confusion among families is understandable, especially because GPAs can confer bragging rights during high school commencement season. At an Arizona high school last May, a dispute over which of two graduates with the same GPA -- 4.82 -- should be named class valedictorian prompted the school district to scrap the title.
Research consistently shows that a student's high school grades are the best predictor of their likelihood of success in college. Annual surveys by the National Association for College Admission Counseling show that most admissions officials put a high priority on grades -- particularly grades in college-prep courses.
"It's very hard for parents," says Janet Rosier, an independent counselor in Woodbridge, Conn. "They know what they know. They know their student and they know their high school. But they don't really have an understanding of the bigger picture."
She tells them that each college scours high school grades and transcripts according to its own criteria. Swarthmore's Bock, for example, says he looks for evidence that students have taken the most challenging classes they can. University of Florida's admissions staff recalculates student grade point averages based on five academic areas: English, math social science, natural science and foreign language, says Zina Evans, vice president for enrollment management.
Neither The Princeton Review nor U.S. News & World Report factor high school GPAs into their college rankings formulas. The Princeton Review publishes GPAs if schools provide the information, says David Soto, director of content development.
In this year's guide, nearly a third -- 49 -- didn't, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Yale. No school listed a high school GPA for its freshman class below a 3.0, or B, average. An even dozen schools list GPAs of 4.0 or higher.
And the number makes a difference for some of them.
"The GPA is very important in our decision-making process," says Robert Bennett, senior associate director of admissions at Clemson, where the average high school GPAs for new freshman catapulted from 3.59 to 4.10 over five years. The range on math scores remained the same, 580-680 out of a possible 800.
A number of factors likely contribute to the increase, he says, including greater access to Advanced Placement courses, which can be weighted more heavily by high schools, and a growing number of applicants. "We're kind of a hot school," Bennett says.
Grade inflation may also play a role, but it matters little, he says. High schools "present their students in the best light," Bennett says. "We want to see their students in the best academic light."