How Some Colleges are Building Student Resilience and Grit

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by Paul Marthers, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, Emory University

Managing the student life cycle requires cross-divisional initiatives and the willingness to innovate. Applying a student success lens to the student life cycle has led institutions to examine the relative roles played by traditional measures of academic achievement (grades, credits completed, major requirements met) and less traditional, non-cognitive indicators such as student grit and resilience. This shifting approach is leading to intentional campus initiatives designed to foster attitudes and behaviors that will promote student success—as measured by higher retention, graduation, and student satisfaction rates.

For example, consider the programming offered by the Office of Undergraduate Retention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Recognizing that today’s college students live their daily lives on their devices, the UNC-CH retention office website is stocked with descriptions of workshops on, and suggestions for further exploration of, topics such as developing a growth mindset, thinking positively amidst change, and becoming resilient.

Similarly, the Student Success Advocates program at the University of Utah provides video resources for students, with titles that include: Growth Mindset;” “Change Your Mindset, Change the Game;” and “Ability, Effort, or Mindset?”

There is increasing evidence that such factors matter. A recent Rice University study, for example, found clear evidence that students at four-year colleges get better grades and are more likely to graduate if they exhibit three key traits:

  1. A growth mindset (belief that their intelligence can improve over time).
  2. A sense of belonging and social integration into campus life (flagged as especially important for underrepresented students).
  3. An intrinsic motivation to achieve.

The Rice research team found that 83% of the retention and completion studies examined showed strong evidence that these three non-cognitive factors led to higher rates of student success. Further, the study found that retention and graduation rates can be positively impacted by low-cost and relatively simple interventions that develop and strengthen resilience-correlated characteristics such as internal motivation.  Such findings underscore the fact that universities need to think not just about how to recruit resilient students but also how to build the resilience of the students they have enrolled, both to help those students persist through graduation and depart their alma mater better prepared for life, career, and citizenship.

Examples of Resilience-Building Initiatives

At institutions across the country, we are seeing the emergence of both student-initiated activities or programs (in which students highlight for each other the need to persevere amidst adversity) and cross-campus initiatives designed to educate students about ways to build their resilience and grit. For example:

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