Looking at Student “Grit” and Resilience – from Recruitment to Retention

Image of students studying at a virtual reality learning center

Series: Managing the Student Lifecycle
This new series convenes expert perspectives on student success and predictive analytics. We hope to empower enrollment managers, student affairs professionals, deans, and faculty to think deeper about their student data, predictors of success, and managing the student lifecycle holistically from recruitment to retention to completion.

Earlier in this series:
Improving Student Success Can’t Be a One-Office Effort
Developing a Metrics-Driven Culture within Student Affairs
It’s Not Just About the First and Second Year of College

We need to be thinking about the non-cognitive factors in student success from the very beginning, from the admissions cycle on.

In higher education, there is growing recognition that scholastic achievement is the result of more than just talent and cognitive ability. Studies have shown that the non-cognitive skill we call effort also plays a critical role. MacArthur Fellow and University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Lee Duckworth has found through her research that effort is highly influenced by a psychological characteristic she calls “grit.” Grit, according to Duckworth, is the ability to persevere in the face of difficulty.

Duckworth’s research has sparked an explosion of articles, studies, and even courses (including one at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) that explore how non-cognitive factors like grit, and its close cousin “resilience,” affect student achievement. At colleges and universities, there has been renewed interest in developing enrollment processes and student affairs initiatives (grounded in research findings on non-cognitive skills) to improve conditions for student success.

In doing so, institutions have begun to move forward in the following ways:

  • Enrollment offices have integrated non-cognitive factors into the holistic review of applicants for admission.
  • Student affairs offices have devised interventions that impact non-cognitive factors in ways that drive higher retention and graduation rates.
  • In a few cases (which I’ll discuss at the end of this article), institutions are launching “resilience initiatives” that help students develop resilience and grit in the classroom.

In this article, I’d like to walk you through some of the key examples of these efforts – and I think it’s important not to look at them in isolation. We need to be considering the impact non-cognitive factors have on student success throughout the student lifecycle, from admissions to graduation.

Non-Cognitive Skills and Enrollment Management

Enrollment management offices are moving away from relying primarily on grades and test scores in selecting students. We’re seeing a shift toward a holistic approach to admissions, which seeks to assess applicants based on much more than their numbers. The rationale behind holistic admissions tends to depend on the institution’s level of selectivity:

  • At highly selective colleges that have more than ten applicants for every available spot, there is a baseline reality of a surplus of applicant quality—as measured by the numbers—that needs to get winnowed down by introducing other factors, including non-cognitive ones. Those other factors tend to give dimension to the individuals behind the numbers on the transcripts and test reports. In crafting a class, practitioners of holistic admissions seek to assemble the most talented, interesting, and diverse group of incoming students, based on the belief that such a heterogeneous class will create a better learning environment on the campus.
  • For less selective colleges, where few students present high grades and test scores, a holistic approach can help identify applicants who have been successful in school despite overwhelming personal challenges.

Holistic review started with a de-emphasis on standardized test scores. Although some colleges were early adoptees of test-optional admissions (notably Bowdoin College in 1969), the pace toward test optional began to pick up after 1984, when a Bates College study determined that SAT scores were far less predictive of academic success there than high school preparation, exemplified by the course selection and grade patterns shown on a transcript.

Fast forward to 2017, and you find more than 925 colleges (ranging from Baldwin Wallace to Worcester Polytechnic Institute) that no longer require applicants to submit a standardized test score. DePaul University, for example, calls out non-cognitive skills in telling prospective applicants that “four years of perseverance, motivation, and effort during high school bear a direct relationship to successful college-level work.” Even flagship public universities like the University of Arizona make test scores optional, except for applicants to engineering and special honors and competitive merit scholarship programs.

This raises multiple questions:

  1. Can you recruit for resilience?
  2. Are there ways to check for non-cognitive skills like academic commitment and resilience during the admissions review process?
  3. How should such factors inform enrollment strategies?

Let’s look at specific examples of how institutions are answering these questions.

Oregon State University tells prospective applicants that it seeks students who “go above and beyond the minimum, whether in talent, academic ability, or potential.” To get at this, Oregon State asks students to provide an “Insight Resume” that will help its admissions evaluators better understand the applicant as a “unique, contributing individual.” Of particular interest to Oregon State is an understanding of the applicant’s achievements within the “context of [their] social and personal circumstances.” That reads like an attempt to surface non-cognitive skills such as academic commitment, grit, and resilience.

Similarly, the University of Washington’s admissions review process considers personal characteristics such as “demonstrating notable tenacity” or “attaining a college-preparatory education in the face of significant personal adversity.”

Essay prompts can also identify non-cognitive aspects of an applicant’s record. On the University of California Application, two of the eight available essay prompts (an applicant must answer four) speak to non-cognitive factors, such as the academic commitment needed to surmount an “educational barrier” and the resilience required to “overcome [a] challenge.” On the Common Application used by nearly 700 colleges, one of the five essay options gets at resilience by asking the applicant to tell about a time of personal failure and what was learned from that experience.

Colleges using these types of essay options might want to track the enrollment rate and progress of students who write about non-cognitive skills such as resilience.

Non-Cognitive Skills and Student Success

Generations of student affairs professionals have studied University of Maryland Professor Emeritus William Sedlacek’s research on how non-cognitive variables such as positive self-concept, realistic self-appraisal, and the ability to handle existing systems can determine success in college. Research evidence continues to emerge on the role that other non-cognitive factors such as grit and resilience play in student success, inspiring many campuses to review their student success programs and practices to determine how they can promote adaptive non-cognitive skills. In fact, at SUNY there are plans to hold a system-wide conference on student resilience that will draw student affairs, academic advising, and enrollment management officials from around our 64 campuses.

Colleges, especially those that are most concerned about access, want to know whether their incoming students are primed for a successful experience. For example, through its first-year experience and retention programs, Utah Valley University seeks to promote a culture of student support. A campus mantra at Utah Valley is “retention is everyone’s job.” To educate faculty about and engage them in best practices around retention, Utah Valley offers a student success discussion series that addresses non-cognitive skills such as developing academic stamina in first-year students and fostering student resilience.

Similarly, at SUNY Brockport, staff in the enrollment and student affairs offices are discussing the role of resilience and grit in student success. Brockport already engages in some forms of holistic review in admissions, especially for applicants whose numerical credentials put them in the lower tier of the potentially acceptable range. Brockport is exploring how to incorporate such factors into its predictive model for post-admissions enrollment.

Student success professionals are beginning to track the student lifecycle patterns occurring at their particular institutions, sharing this data with the key offices involved, and working collaboratively to design interventions and programs that boost retention, graduation, and student satisfaction rates. As campus officials gain a clearer understanding of how non-cognitive factors such as a student’s educational commitment and resilience can be predictive of student success, such data can be collected before the student ever gets to campus and then be used to help target student success resources.

For example, while he was Director of Admissions at SUNY Cobleskill, Rob Blanchet examined the degree to which traditional measures (such as high school GPA and standardized test scores) and non-cognitive variables (such as academic engagement, educational commitment, academic self-efficacy, resilience, social comfort, and campus engagement) predict first semester GPA and first to second semester retention. Blanchet found that high school GPA and campus engagement (in that order) were the best predictors of first semester GPA and first to second semester retention at Cobleskill.

Now that he has moved into the chief enrollment position at SUNY’s Morrisville State College, Blanchet plans to investigate 1) whether and the extent to which non-cognitive characteristics can help predict student success; and 2) how those factors might inform retention initiatives. To answer those questions at Morrisville State, Blanchet intends to use the Student Strength Inventory (SSI), which measures a student’s Academic Self Efficacy (how much the student feels s/he can control situations); Educational commitment (internal drive to get a college degree); Social comfort (ability to communicate and make friends on campus); Resilience (how well a student approaches difficult situations and challenges); and Campus engagement (the student’s level of involvement and activity). Already, on a limited scale, Morrisville is building SSI factors into how it conducts interviews with prospective students, especially those whose grades and test scores raise concerns. A planned next step at Morrisville is to incorporate SSI factors into the admissions review process—with an eye toward identifying students with non-cognitive indicators that predict success in college.

But Morrisville officials aren’t just thinking about predictive analytics to inform admissions decisions; they are thinking about what happens after admission, too. Beginning with the fall 2017 entering class, Morrisville will ask students to take the SSI just before arriving on campus for orientation. Results of the SSI instrument will be shared with the dean of students, academic success, and advising offices. Students will be tracked to determine which of the SSI factors best predict retention and degree attainment.

Similar efforts are occurring at Lone Star College in Tomball, Texas. LSC-Tomball has shifted its student success and college completion efforts toward developing four key non-cognitive skills in its students: growth, resilience, instinct, and tenacity (or GRIT). Students enrolled in LSC-Tomball’s student success course take a GRIT Gauge assessment at the beginning and end of each term. Through the GRIT Gauge, students gain insights into their non-cognitive strengths and weaknesses and are expected to use that feedback to help them navigate the student success course. LSC-Tomball has found that higher GRIT Gauge scores correlate with higher GPAs, greater levels of co-curricular engagement, and better graduation rates.

Programs One Level Up: Resilience Initiatives at Stanford University and the University of Alabama

I want to call attention to two programs in particular that have adopted a more sophisticated (and resourced) approach to encouraging and cultivating grit and resilience throughout the students’ academic cycle.

Stanford University
Alumni of stratospherically selective colleges such as Stanford often speak of arriving on campus as new students and realizing that surrounding them are “superstars” who have never experienced failure. As a result, Stanford students know well the phenomenon called “duck syndrome” – that is, a calm, seemingly confident, surface appearance that belies the frantic paddling occurring below the water line. At places like Stanford, the goal is to make everything look effortless; failure is not an option.

The Resilience Project at Stanford attempts to change all that. Under the auspices of Stanford’s vice provost for teaching and learning, the Resilience Project supports students as they experience and learn from “the setbacks that are a normal part of a rigorous education.” The goal of Stanford’s Resilience Project is to ‘change the perception of failure from something to be avoided at all costs to something that has meaning, purpose, and value.”

The University of Alabama
As at Stanford, faculty and student affairs officials at the University of Alabama believe that students can learn valuable lessons from failure. Alabama’s Resiliency Project emphasizes the attitudes and skills needed to overcome obstacles. Alabama offers a speaker series and a number of courses that aim to foster a culture of student success by helping students acquire the attitudes and ideation, constructive behaviors, and social interaction skills most closely aligned with resilience.

Conclusion – Questions to Ask

The initiatives described in this article are a good start, but more can be done. To make further progress, chief enrollment managers, chief student affairs officers, and provosts must work together to craft and evaluate interventions intended to strengthen a student’s non-cognitive skills–such as resilience–over the course of the student lifecycle.

At what stage is your institution in considering whether and how to assess resilience in admissions and student success initiatives? What takeaways can you bring to your colleagues from the programs we discussed above? I encourage you to share this article widely and use it as a conversation-starter on your campus.

Also, check out the upcoming Developing a Comprehensive Retention Plan conference. Take a strategic look at your student success efforts, and develop a retention plan that connects your data, institutional mission, and available resources.