Let’s value grit over grades

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY MITCH DANIELS The Wash­ing­ton Post

Re­sum­ing a de­bate that has arisen oc­ca­sion­ally in the past, some U.S. colleges have an­nounced that they will no longer re­quire ap­pli­cants to pro­vide stan­dard­ized test scores, but in­stead will look to high school grade-point av­er­ages and sub­jec­tive in­for­ma­tion.

The in­sti­tu­tion I lead, Pur­due Uni­ver­sity, will not be join­ing that group. A re­view of all the data tells us that no ad­mis­sions cri­te­ria that ig­nores ei­ther the SAT or ACT exam can pre­dict with equiv­a­lent ac­cu­racy a stu­dent’s col­lege per­for­mance, or his or her best place­ment level in crit­i­cal fresh­man cour­ses such as math­e­mat­ics. Ac­cept­ing a high school “A” at face value and en­rolling a stu­dent in a cal­cu­lus course be­yond his or her ca­pa­bil­i­ties does the stu­dent a se­ri­ous dis­ser­vice by risk­ing an avoid­able fail­ure.

Still, as­sign­ing greater weight to high school grade-point av­er­ages has its mer­its. In many cases, the GPA proves to be a re­li­able in­di­ca­tor of dis­ci­pline, per­sis­tence and re­silience — char­ac­ter­is­tics nec­es­sary to suc­ceed at the col­lege level (to say noth­ing of adult life). In the cur­rent ver­nac­u­lar, these traits are of­ten col­lec­tively called “grit.” En­roll­ment ex­perts agree on its sig­nif­i­cance. The prob­lem is in know­ing when a high GPA re­flects it and when it doesn’t.

The chal­lenge for to­day’s col­lege ad­mis­sions of­fi­cer is like the one faced by cor­po­rate re­cruiters: In an era of ram­pant grade in­fla­tion, which grades can you be­lieve? Busi­nesses be­gan learn­ing years ago not to put much stock in diplo­mas from schools where the av­er­age grad­u­ate’s GPA is 3.5 or higher and may not be at all in­dica­tive of real learn­ing or readi­ness for the modern work­place.

Last year, re­searchers re­ported that nearly half of high school se­niors in 2016 — 47 per­cent — grad­u­ated with an “A” av­er­age. That’s up from 38.9 per­cent in 1998. As or­di­nary stu­dents in­creas­ingly “earn” higher marks, teach­ers help top stu­dents stand out by grant­ing them ex­tra credit of var­i­ous kinds. The re­sult: It is now not un­usual for colleges to see high school GPA av­er­ages above a “per­fect” 4.0. Soon, it will be time to get real and re­set the scale with its top at ei­ther 5.0 or 6.0. This GPA in­fla­tion oc­curred while na­tional ACT and SAT scores were go­ing down.

It is in­creas­ingly clear that, though a strong high school GPA may in­di­cate “grit,” it can also just be a sign of lax grad­ing — pro­duc­ing not re­silience but its op­po­site.

The emo­tional fragility of many young peo­ple to­day is, by now, a well­doc­u­mented phe­nom­e­non. Col­lege stu­dents’ psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems, and gen­uine men­tal ill­ness, are very real; ev­ery school I know of ap­proaches the mat­ter with ut­ter se­ri­ous­ness and re­spon­si­bil­ity. Run­ning a col­lege ne­ces­si­tates ev­er­grow­ing num­bers of coun­selors and ther­a­pists, but keep­ing up can be dif­fi­cult. Re­quests for ap­point­ments start al­most as soon as a new class ar­rives. This fall at our school, at least one fresh­man sought a coun­sel­ing ses­sion be­fore set­ting foot on cam­pus.

The trend has spawned a host of ex­plana­tory the­o­ries. Many have pointed to parental over­pro­tec­tive­ness as the pri­mary cause, and, no doubt, that is a real fac­tor. In the new book “The Cod­dling of the Amer­i­can Mind,” co-au­thors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write that many young peo­ple, hav­ing too rarely han­dled prob­lems or ad­ver­sity on their own, now in­stinc­tively run, look­ing for an adult at the first whiff of dif­fi­culty.

On cam­puses, one sees plenty of sup­port for the au­thors’ con­tention. Calls and emails from wor­ried par­ents — not only to the stu­dent but di­rectly to uni­ver­sity of­fices — are a daily fact of life. The phrase “he­li­copter par­ent” is no longer ad­e­quate; now you hear about “lawn­mower par­ents.”

Many prob­lems brought to our coun­selors are of so­cial ori­gin — lone­li­ness, cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, just plain home­sick­ness — but many oth­ers stem from aca­demic anx­i­ety, and small won­der. Fresh­men who rarely saw a “B” dur­ing their K-12 years can be se­verely jolted when handed back a pa­per marked “C.” Too many par­tic­i­pa­tion tro­phies when grow­ing up is a lousy prepa­ra­tion for life at a rea­son­ably rig­or­ous uni­ver­sity, let alone in the real world be­yond.

Of course, one easy so­lu­tion for colleges is just to go with the grade­in­fla­tion flow, and ob­vi­ously many in­sti­tu­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion have cho­sen that route. Places de­ter­mined in­stead to stretch and chal­lenge stu­dents, aim­ing to help them achieve their full po­ten­tial, will have to take on the trick­ier task of iden­ti­fy­ing and fos­ter­ing true grit, pro­vid­ing qual­ity coun­sel­ing ev­ery­where it’s needed with­out wors­en­ing what is al­ready an overly ther­a­peu­tic cul­ture.

Mean­while, let’s hope the Col­lege Board comes up with a new GPA — Grit Po­ten­tial As­sess­ment. I guar­an­tee you, our uni­ver­sity will be the first cus­tomer.

Daniels, a Post con­tribut­ing colum­nist, is pres­i­dent of Pur­due Uni­ver­sity and a for­mer gov­er­nor of In­di­ana.

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