Investigating Grit at a Non-Cognitive Predictor of College Success
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Investigating Grit at a Non-Cognitive Predictor of College Success

Investigating Grit at a Non-Cognitive Predictor of College Success

Admissions professionals have historically relied on measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement to make decisions about which applicants are admitted to their institutions. Validity studies have consistently demonstrated that high school grades and standardized test scores are substantial and significant predictors of first-year grade point average (Camara & Echternacht, 2000). [End Page 163] But these predictors are not without limitations. Together, these two variables typically explain only 25% of the variation in first-year GPA, leaving most of the variance in college success unexplained. In addition, because of large subgroup differences between minority and non-minority students, many believe standardized tests are ethnically and culturally biased (Freedle, 2003; Santelices & Wilson, 2010). Standardized test scores are also highly correlated with socio-economic class (Crosby, Iyer, Clayton, & Downing, 2003; Kohn, 2001; Zwick, 2004), leaving them open to the criticism that they better measure parents’ wealth than future academic potential. At the very least, selection on the basis of these factors alone potentially decreases ethnic and socioeconomic diversity and underestimates the likelihood of success for many capable students. As a result of the shortcomings of these traditional measures, there is a growing interest in supplementing them with non-cognitive predictors of college success.

Non-Cognitive Factors

To some extent, non-cognitive characteristics of students have always been a part of the college admissions process. Most selective universities require applicants to write essays, submit letters of recommendations, and describe their extracurricular activities, all of which give insight into an applicant’s character and personality. But trying to measure these qualities in a systematic way to scale is challenging for universities. Even when admissions professionals quantify these non-cognitive characteristics - by rating them on a likert scale, for example—they might not have the resources or expertise to make sure they are doing so reliably. Indeed, in a study investigating the reliability of six different ratings scales used in admissions decisions at one university, Kretchmar (2006) found that only two met the criteria for applied use.

In recent years, more formal, large-scale efforts to incorporate non-cognitive measures into college admissions have been made. Researchers at Michigan State University, in partnership with the College Board, grounded their efforts in the industrial and organizational psychology literature on job performance and employee selection (Schmitt, 2012). By conducting a “job analysis” for the typical college student, they developed multi-dimensional predictor and outcome measures of success. Their measures include non-cognitive skills such as leadership, adaptability, social responsibility, ethics, and intellectual curiosity, among others (Schmitt et al., 2009).

Similarly, Sternberg, Bonney, Gabora, and Merrifield (2012) have advocated for the introduction of non-cognitive measures in college admissions by conceptualizing intelligence as a multi-dimensional construct inclusive of creativity, wisdom, and analytical and practical intelligence, and not simply a measure of general ability as it was originally conceived. The non-cognitive measures developed by Schmitt et al. (2009) and Sternberg et al. (2012) [End Page 164] have both demonstrated incremental validity in the prediction of grade point average, above and beyond standardized test scores and high school GPA. While these represent promising beginnings in the search for non-cognitive predictors of college success, they require applicants to write additional answers to essay questions, watch and respond to movie excerpts, complete questionnaires with hundreds of items, or read and respond to lengthy descriptions of situational judgment scenarios, none of which are as easily implemented on a large scale. New developments in the field of positive psychology may be especially well positioned to contribute with contemporary constructs and scale development.


The construct of grit, broadly defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, has recently been shown to predict a variety of achievement outcomes above and beyond traditional measures like IQ and SAT (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Although research on grit is in its infancy, it has a distinguished ancestry. Turn-of-the-nineteenth-century philosophers and psychologists like William James, Sir Francis Galton, and Lewis Terman, were all...