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Why students who do well in high school bomb in college

These traits separate the successful students from the not-so-successful ones (iStock)

The first year of college is a tough transition, and for many students, a disillusioning one.

A study conducted last fall at the University of Toronto found that incoming students arrived with unreasonably optimistic expectations. On average, students predicted they would earn grade-point averages of 3.6. Those dreams were swiftly punctured. By the end of the year, the average freshman had only a 2.3.

What separated the high-achievers from the low-achievers? As any college admissions counselor will tell you, high school grades have always been the single best predictor of college success. But that does not mean that high school grades are good predictors. Research shows that differences in students’ high school GPAs explain only about 20 percent of the differences between students’ college GPAs.

What accounts for the remainder is still something of a debate and a mystery. Standardized test scores factor in, as does socioeconomic status. And increasingly, education experts think that character traits such as grit, perseverance and conscientiousness play a role.

The University of Toronto study, a draft of which was recently released by the National Bureau for Economic Research, sought to understand why there were such wide discrepancies in college performance among students with similar high school records. The researchers, Graham Beattie of the University of Pittsburgh, and Jean-William Laliberté and Philip Oreopoulos of the University of Toronto, gave students personality quizzes to determine which traits were correlated with college success.

They focused on two kinds of students. The “thrivers” were those who did much better in college than their high school grades would have predicted. The “divers” were those who did much worse. Mostly, these students were neither superstars in high school nor delinquents — they all got fairly good, respectable grades. But upon arriving at college, the thrivers averaged A's, while the divers averaged F's.

What the divers had in common was a tendency toward rashness and disorder. In particular, they lacked a trait that psychologists call “conscientiousness.” Compared with the average student, divers were less likely to describe themselves as organized or detail-oriented, less likely to say that they are prepared, that they follow a schedule or that they get work done right away. Divers were also more likely to say they crammed for exams and more likely to score highly on measures of impatience.

It was more difficult to predict which college students would outperform their high school transcripts. One trait that stood out was the amount of time that students studied. Thrivers arrived at college ready to work hard. Compared with the divers, the thrivers planned to study three additional hours a week, on average.

Other personality traits, such as agreeableness (being kind and empathetic toward others), openness to new ideas (being imaginative and curious) or emotional stability (not being anxious or easily upset), did not appear to matter much in determining whether people were thrivers or divers. Instead, the traits related to work-study habits seemed to be the most predictive.

The researchers emphasize that these are only correlations. Although they controlled for some aspects of students’ backgrounds, such as the education levels of their parents, it’s possible that other factors are responsible as well. For instance, the study found some evidence that divers were more likely to spend time working outside jobs during the school year, which hints at financial stress as a complicating circumstance in their lives.

Here are nine facts about poor students and the college experience. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: iStock/The Washington Post)

[Why poor kids don’t stay in college]

Cultural differences might also help explain the performance gaps. As part of the study, students were asked to write about themselves and their goals. Thrivers were significantly more likely to use words such as “trustworthy,” “wise” and “helpful” to describe their future selves, while divers were more likely to use words like “tough,” “man” and “rich.” While thrivers dreamed about contributing to society or helping others, divers were more likely to cite wealth or success in business as their goals.

In recent years, many educators have started to emphasize what they call “noncognitive” skills. They recognize that success in school — and in life — requires much more than intelligence. In modern elementary classrooms, children have to be able to sit still and listen. They have to control their impulses to interrupt the teacher, and they must turn in their homework on time. Later on, a student’s grades also reflect a capacity to resist procrastination, to concentrate in class, and to juggle academic and extracurricular demands.

Some of this research is overhyped. University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth has shown that “grit” — being passionate and hard-working — is an important trait that predicts student achievement. But even Duckworth says that some people have taken her findings too far. We don’t know yet if grit is a trait that can be cultivated; and critics say students who come from stressful, low-income environments might have a particularly hard time developing gritty characteristics.

The famous marshmallow experiment, for instance, found that children with less self-control — who could not resist eating a marshmallow right away — earned lower SAT scores later in life. But more recent research has argued that for children from poorer backgrounds, the impulsive choice is often the more rational choice in the context of their lives.

So it would be a mistake to judge the students at the University of Toronto study too harshly. Although some are hobbled by their problems with procrastination and disorganization, these same students clearly have potential. They made it through high school just fine, after all, but it seems that college demands far more of one's ability to manage chaos and temptation.

In this ongoing project, the researchers hope to find ways to nudge students in the right direction, perhaps through text-message reminders or remedial coaching to bolster their study skills. There's a growing realization, they say, that before some students can begin to learn, they need to be taught how to learn.

Walter Mischel led the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here he speaks about the test and its implications. (Video: Bob Greenberg)