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Grit: Redefining A Quotient for College Admissions

July 7th, 2014
Written by Susan Dabbar

‘Grit’ poses as a relative newcomer to college admission circles. Along with its sidekicks, tenacity and perseverance, ongoing research suggests that college admissions now consider these variables in their selection process. Non-cognitive variables, (the technical term used in HigherEd), take their place alongside more familiar indicators, such as standardized test scores and GPA. This research makes for exciting news, except these new darlings of success predictors are almost impossible to measure, at least for now.

photo of Grit

College Readiness Metrics Need an Overhaul

The field of college admissions has dramatically changed since the SAT was first administered in 1926. Today, educators and counselors agree that we need a new approach to measure a student’s aptitude. Students must be able to succeed in our world of monumental change, STEM emphasis, and economic instability. Trends indicate that current college readiness metrics need an overhaul. But these same experts agree to disagree on how to enact change.

Grit advocate, Angela Lee Duckworth, a former McKinsey consultant, quickly realized that IQ wasn’t the best predictor of success during her time as a middle school teacher. With over 4 million views, her TED talk, “The key to success? Grit”, stresses that “grit is living life like it is a marathon”. She explores all corners of the grit-o-sphere by studying personal characteristics vs. outcomes at places like West Point and the National Spelling Bee. She even spent time studying the attrition and success of rookie teachers practicing in tough neighborhoods. Her findings reveal that only one success predictor emerges – grit (rather than IQ or good looks).

In a February 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Education, a 126-page study was conducted on promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance as critical factors for success moving forward in education. An esteemed list of high profile organizations are backing this work, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, University of Chicago, The National Science Foundation, UC Berkeley and Stanford. William Sedlacek, a pioneer and author of works on this subject, concurs that these factors allow a student to strive for and succeed at long-term and higher order goals. College admissions departments are relying on these findings. Sculpting a diverse and well-rounded class is one thing, but accurately predicting who can successfully handle the trials of college life and graduate in four years could be the Holy Grail for admission and enrollment managers.

Colleges are looking for something new

Colleges are now seeking students that possess confidence, strength of character, leadership, and determination, as well as the ability to realistically self appraise strengths and weaknesses. Grit plays a big part in contributing to these traits. While this set of characteristics might be easy to articulate, educators are finding that measuring these factors is not easy. For starters, each student is different. The grit factor for an under represented minority or first generation student may be very different than the grit factor for an affluent white student. Currently, colleges may loosely assign a grit quotient by assessing how a particular student works within and around all the circumstances dealt to them in their life. For additional validation, they will overlay those findings with how the student has created and connected both challenges and opportunities, applying them towards longer-term goals. Here, the bandwidth is unpredictable and enormous. For some, the challenges are inherent; for others the challenges need to be sought out or even created.

Colleges are seeking students that are able to adapt and succeed in a changing environment. Managing chaos and change are important components to student success. Standardized test scores and blurred GPA gradients no longer work as predictors. Admissions, especially at the highly selective schools, agree that many students “top out” on the traditional metrics like SAT scores and GPA. Today, so many students are earning a 4.0, that this once rare achievement has now become indistinguishable. This practice has become so problematic that many high schools now have 100 or more valedictorians.

Measuring Grit Can Offer Colleges Better Predictors

For some kids a perfect SAT score comes easily: the parents spend thousands of dollars on test prep, the student has free time to study, and everything from laundry to meals is taken care of by mom. However, that may be the same student that crumbles at the first sign of adversity come freshman year. Colleges are scrambling for a reliable predictor to identify the students who can take a punch or two without caving. They believe that measuring grit can get them there. But creating the right measurement tools presents a new set of challenges. Sedlacek argues, “instead of asking; ‘How can we make the current measures better?’ we need to ask; ‘What kinds of measures will meet our needs now and in the future?’” Educators agree that there is a growing need to explore the potential of the non-cognitive factors – social skills, personality traits, attitudes and self-directed resources – that are inherent within every student – factors that enable their success. But identifying a clear and fair way proves difficult.

Putting it another way, this research is promoting new ways for students with non-traditional experiences to show off their abilities. Research by Duckworth and Sedlacek suggest that these harder to define factors can be just as important as intellectual knowledge-based abilities in assessing success potential. Educators confirm that certain personality traits, coupled with socio-economic and cultural context can contribute to success. Factors like motivation even in the face of distraction, ability to handle failure, and placing a keen eye on future goals have proven to promote success in college and in life.

One thing is clear. The US will face unprecedented challenges as our students prepare for an increasingly complex, competitive and multi-cultural world. Students today are experiencing an educational tipping point, with broader choices but much greater risks. Both access and affordability are teetering on the edge. As students get ready for more demanding careers, they will require increasingly complicated commitment, mastery and resources. At the same time, our communities are facing a social explosion contributed by income disparity and and a weakening internal support system. Regardless of socioeconomic conditions, kids will default to their non-cognitive values for survival and success.

How much GRIT do you have? Take the online test. (2 minutes)

Additional Resources:

Jon Boeckenstedt: “More on Non-Cognitive Variables.” Web blog post 20 Jan. 2013

Curtis T. Sandberg and Kelly D. Bradley: Proactive Identification of Academic Difficulty of Undergraduates – A Survey to Measure the Non-Cognitive Variables. 13 Oct. 2011

Jennifer L. Bell: An examination of Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Factors and Academic Success in the Pre-engineering Curriculum at a Four-year Southeastern University. Diss. Auburn University, 2008

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