Study: Grit as an Indicator of College Success

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Underlying the college admission process is the principle that colleges should strive to accept the most academically talented students. What are the factors that best predict academic success in college?

Historically, postsecondary institutions have relied on quantitative indicators such as high school GPA and standardized test scores to assess a student’s academic potential, and with good reason—there is strong evidence linking these factors with academic performance in college. Yet such measures are neither foolproof, nor do they capture key non-cognitive characteristics, like motivation, enthusiasm, and maturity, which also impact academic outcomes.

A new study by Dr. Patrick Akos and Dr. Jen Kretchmar published in The Review of Higher Education examines the predictive power of one non-cognitive trait—grit. According to research by Dr. Angela Duckworth, grit is a construct encompassing two dimensions: consistency of interest and perseverance of effort. An example of a “gritty” student is one who is steadfast in pursuing long-term goals.

Past survey research on the validity of grit in predicting college success has been mixed. This may largely be a result of social desirability response bias, a phenomenon whereby research participants provide answers based on what they believe society deems acceptable rather than on their true feelings.

The latest study avoids this bias by measuring the grit of students in two ways. First, a group of first-year undergraduates completed an eight-item survey assessing their consistency of effort and perseverance. Participants were then asked to supply the contact information of a teacher, friend, or mentor who could also assess them on these characteristics. Those individuals, referred to as “informants” by the researchers, used the same grit survey to assess the students and the results were compared.

Notable findings included:

  • Students’ self-reported grit scores were a significant predictor of first-year college GPA. Thus, “gritty” individuals attained higher grades. In addition, students with low levels of grit were more likely to change their major during the first four semesters of college.
  • There were significant differences between the informant and self-reported grit scores. Grit scores reported by informants were higher than those reported by the students themselves.
  • Underrepresented minority students reported lower levels of perseverance than their non-minority counterparts.

The researchers emphasize the importance of further study on this topic, pointing out that first-year GPA may not be the most appropriate outcome when analyzing grit. For instance, grit may be a better predictor of third-or fourth-year GPA in a student’s major as it would perhaps better reflect his or her consistency of interest and perseverance of effort.

Grit is thus just one of many characteristics which college officials may want to investigate as they seek to incorporate more non-cognitive factors into the admission decision.

Tara Nicola is a NACAC research associate. She can be reached at tnicola@nacacnet.org.

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