Traditional Higher Education is Anti-Grit

This article argues that higher education should adopt grit-oriented education strategies.

Grit is better than IQ at predicting GPA and college graduation rate.

However, traditional higher education is anti-grit in several ways. If grit is already a dominant factor in spite of institutional resistance, imagine the potential which could be unleashed when institutions proactively enable grit-oriented education.

Grit-oriented higher education would allow for increased academic success and pursuant success such as increased income, welfare, and so on.

A typical 4 year degree program from an accredited institution is anti-grit in at least 2 ways:

  • Selection into the program is based on standardized test scores. These scores indicate IQ, but not grit.
  • GPA requirements and repeat policies limit the number of times a course may be taken. Grit depends on passion and persistence, but repeat policies prevent students from implementing long-term learning strategies.
    • Due to added length and requirement stringency, these policies may significantly and disproportionately impact Ph.D. students. This may contribute to the current Ph.D. attrition crisis and the decline of the Ph.D., alongside weaker income benefits, dramatically higher prices, and better substitutes.

In addition to being anti-success, anti-grit policies are not smart for the business of education.

By selecting into the program based on SAT scores, institutions are ostensibly trying to ensure they are teaching students capable of learning and graduating, but students with high grit and low SAT scores are often more capable of graduating than students with high SAT scores and low grit.

I am not saying universities should filter out by grit instead of SAT score. I am saying that many institutions would improve their financial position by accepting students which have either a good SAT score or demonstrable grit.

Repeat policies which limit the ability to retake the same class are also bad for the business of schools. Schools could earn more money by selling to students that want to retake a class and improve their grade. This would also ultimately improve graduation rates without the need for grade inflation.

One concern from a university may be the potential weakening to the institution’s brand or signal.

On the contrary, grit-oriented education would improve institutional brand and signal quality.

Grit and IQ can be considered measures of two different learning competencies. Grit is best matched to long-term learning including professional experience, learning-by-doing, or rote learning. A high IQ indicates something more like mental elasticity, adaptability, or neuroplasticity.

There was a time when neuroscientists thought that the capacity to learn was irrevocably set at a young age, but the mainstream view today is that such is not the case. Frankly, a state-of-the-art university should be able to instill IQ rather than filtering for it. However, cognitive training to increase neuroplasticity is new enough that it is pardonable for the average institution to lack the service.

The signal quality and brand of an academy ultimately derive from its ability to instill learning into a person. IQ and grit are different means of learning, but if a student has either then they are capable of learning and should consequently be admitted to the typical program.

Instead of quantity-maximizing, some universities may economize by increasing academic rigor. In one case a university may hold the quality of education constant and receive an additional quantity of demand, but in an alternative case the university will be able to increase academic rigor and maintain an approximately equal graduation rate by increasing the role of grit in learning.

In fact, most schools will fall between these extremes.

In addition, if universities allow students to retake classes then they can reduce pressure on professors to give deceptively complimentary grades. Relaxation of retaking policies allows for universities to restore real rigor into classes.

The final result is better education, and that leads to an improved brand and signal for the university.

Specific actions which can be taken to improve the role of grit in a program include:

  • Relax repeat policies.
  • Admit students to study in spite of low standardized test scores if they can demonstrate grit.
  • Reduce requirements for the study of material unrelated to the student’s key interest. For example, a Chemistry student should have no requirement to take Spanish.
  • Reduce the use of standardized testing within classes.
  • Focus on continuity of learning within classes, and ideally even between classes through the program. For example, discourage the use of surprise exam questions which are other than that which the student has been practicing.
  • Experiment with gamification.

Again, learning shouldn’t be purely grit-oriented, nor purely IQ-oriented. An ideal arrangement seems to be some balance, but I think the Goldilocks combination includes a bit more grit than we typically see today.

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