Opus Education

Worldwide Education Center


Non-Cognitive Skills and College Success

Research by James Heckman, Nobel Prize winning economist and professor at the University of Chicago, makes a strong case for the value of non-cognitive skills. He compared high school graduates to drop-outs who got their GED. Both groups were similar in cognitive ability, but the high school graduates were much more successful in their lives and careers. Dr. Heckman concluded that non-cognitive skills made the difference.

Non-cognitive skills include goal setting, time management, interpersonal and communication skills and also intrapersonal skills (or personality and character traits) such as determination, self-motivation, dependability and grit.

Angela Duckworth conducted studies on the value of “grit” for her doctoral dissertation at Penn State University. She found a high correlation between grit and success in school, career and life. Grit is a strong form of self-discipline and the ability to persistently and passionately complete long-term goals in the face of major obstacles. You can find and take her 24 item Grit Scale at the Authentic Happiness website of Dr. Martin Seligman. Dr. Duckworth also has an excellent presentation about Grit on Ted Talks.

In the book, Crossing the Finish Line by Bowen, Chingos and McPherson their research on over 200,000 college students was reviewed. This was the largest study ever conducted comparing dropouts and college graduates. GPA was 3-5 times a better predictor of college graduation than SAT/ACT scores for most of these students. Students who had maintained high GPAs in high school (regardless of whether it was a high performing school) graduated from college in large numbers. Cognitive ability as measured by SAT/ACT scores were not the primary factor in college graduation. Maintaining consistently high GPAs correlates with grit, self-motivation, hard work and other non-cognitive factors.

At Austin Community College where I teach college success courses, three different studies have been conducted on our “Transition to College Success” eight week course with consistent results. The studies demonstrated that at-risk students who completed a college success course which taught non-cognitive skills, re-enrolled at a rate of 83% their second semester whereas similar students who did not take it yet re-enrolled at only 59%-a 24% difference. This is significant because a high percentage of college students drop out during or right after their first semester of college.

In another study on our full-semester college success course, PSYCH 1300, we found similar results on retention and a .83% increase in the GPA of students who completed the course when compared to similar students who did not take it. These were non-at-risk students who had a full semester to learn and apply the college success strategies. They were also taught metacognition skills (how to observe, monitor, evaluate and regulate their thinking.)

I have been training teachers in high schools how to teach non-cognitive skills and success strategies to their students. We are planning to conduct some studies at the high school level to evaluate the results.

Employers are seeking employees with strong non-cognitive skills. It is important for us to teach students these non-cognitive skills to prepare them for good jobs and for successful lives.