The Importance of Character for College Success

By René Díaz-Lefebvre

Community colleges can help students develop grit so they can go further in education — and in life.

Having worked with many students who have successfully maneuvered and completed college, I am often asked by parents and students for advice in preparing for this life-changing opportunity. My answer is this: character.

By character I mean skills like conscientiousness, responsibility, determination and perseverance. University of Chicago Professor Melissa Roderick identifies these critical components of college readiness as noncognitive academic skills. They include anything from study skills, work habits and time management to help-seeking behavior and problem-solving skills. These are the skills that will help students learn how to think deeply, develop internal motivation and persevere when faced with difficulty — skills needed to complete a college degree.

Beyond the grades a student receives in high school or the scores he or she receives on standardized tests, research has shown that traits like resiliency, resourcefulness and grit are some of the most highly predictive factors for postsecondary success. “Grit” is a term I am particularly fond of: It simply means having the courage, tenacity (or ganas, as we say in Spanish) to continue on with something no matter how overwhelming or exhausting it is. It is a belief in one’s ability to overcome any obstacle that may get in the way of achieving a goal or a dream. This vehement determination, above all, is what I believe best prepares our young men and women for success in college — and in life.

“Research has shown that traits like resiliency, resourcefulness and grit are some of the most highly predictive factors for postsecondary success.”

I have seen it play out among my students time and again. Grit often marks the difference between one student who fails a first exam and immediately loses courage and confidence and proceeds to fail the entire course, versus another student who fails a first exam and, instead of being discouraged, perceives this as an opportunity to overcome, to dig in his heels and challenge himself to learn more and try again, until he does succeed. These are the ingredients not only for a successful college learner but also for a dedicated careerist and a thriving adult.

Furthermore, in today’s environment of rapid-fire technology, one of the most challenging noncognitive skills to master is to delay gratification for the distant prize of a college degree. Nothing can be a substitute or “quick fix” in acquiring something like a college degree, which can only be earned through hard work, perseverance and determination toward completion.

Navigating the world of higher education can be one of the most enjoyable, rewarding and profitable endeavors — and we should cultivate the character traits our young people need to see it through.

René Díaz-Lefebvre

is a professor of psychology at Glendale Community College, North Campus, Maricopa Community Colleges, in Arizona.

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