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When Every Equity Problem Looks Like a Noncognitive Nail

It's an old adage, but one I'm quite fond of: When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Whenever someone presents me with a challenge facing higher education, I have a knack for connecting noncognitive skills to the matter at hand. When doing so, the hammer-nail maxim pops into my head, and I begin to wonder if I'm not objectively evaluating the issue.

But then again, if all problems are nails (or nail-related), isn't it a good idea to study hammers?

I've told the story many times before (including in this blog) about the moment I truly fell in love with noncognitive skills. There was a singular instance when I irrevocably decided that this was the path my academic and professional careers would take. It was in August of 2007, during my graduate assistant orientation at James Madison University. Donna Sundre - the former director of JMU's Center for Assessment and Research Studies - was discussing the mission of the center. I'm paraphrasing here, but she said something to the effect of, "When assessing a chemistry class, we don't just want to measure whether or not a student learns chemistry. We want to measure their motivation, their interest in science, and how likely are they to pursue chemistry in the future."

It was a distinct paradigm shift in my life. I reflected on the fact that - for about a century of education and psychology - we had focused so much on measuring traditional aspects of cognitive ability (namely literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking), and yet the same challenges persisted. So why not try something new?

Recently, a friend reached out to me after checking out our website. He mentioned the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In his job, he works with a lot of different constituencies in education, he emphasized that equity is on the forefront of everyone's mind. He evoked a phrase that has been used repeatedly over the last several years: People want this to be a MOVEMENT and not a MOMENT.

I couldn't agree more. As a white male, the last few years have been enlightening to me. I've learned so much about the experiences of others and the ways in which our educational systems have disadvantaged and underserved so many. But when it comes to my work in noncognitive skills, equity has always been a primary goal. In fact, after our conversation, I tried to find a blog post that I was sure I had written about the very topic. Turns out I hadn't written anything on the matter, which leads us to this.

Here's the bottom line: yes, I think addressing noncognitive skills, particularly as part of the student success conversation, is critical for equity. In this post, I want to talk about the relevance of noncognitive skills, discussing three major points:

  1. Noncognitive skills provide a language that stops us from attributing success and failure to immutable student characteristics like race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

  2. Noncognitive skills are a far more effective means of identifying interventions that can actually improve success and increase equity.

  3. Noncognitive skills help distinguish between student and institutional responsibility.


There's another tidbit you've probably heard me drop if you've ever had to listen to my overall spiel about noncognitive skills. It's a quote from Eaton and Beane (1995):

Scholars base most research on retention on sociological principles and theory, and focus on groups rather than individuals. As a result, we know that some groups of students, such as educationally disadvantaged students and certain minority groups, often adapt poorly to their college environments. We know less about the characteristics of individuals within such a group that increase the likelihood of their remaining in school until graduation.

This is really the whole key. If you ask anyone - and I mean ANYone - about what matters to student success, you'll get such an array of answers: Motivation, study skills, interests, intelligence... I could go on. But do you know what no one has ever said to me in response to this question? No one has ever said, "because they're from a wealthy family." And yet the amount of research we have about the relationship between socioeconomic status and student success is staggering. No one has ever said, "because they're a white," and yet we have countless studies on achievement gaps and other ways in which students of color have experienced worse educational outcomes than their peers.

I used to say, "no student succeeds or fails because of the color of their skin or because of the amount of money their parents have." However, learning more and more about institutional racism has shown me this statement is false. Many students have failed because of the color of their skin, it just simply wasn't their fault. It was because they were discriminated against, either in a distinct moment of racism or as a result of years of system systematic oppression.

Yet our research has done so little to help close these gaps because of the issue that Eaton and Beane identify. Researchers can tell you who succeeds and fails, but we can't tell you why that is the case. I mean, we have some good theories, for sure, but perhaps most importantly, we haven't been able to connect this body of literature to any sort of meaningful understanding or action that might remedy the issue.

Here's where noncognitive skills come into the picture. They are the language for that why. They articulate the behavioral, motivational, emotional, and social domains of student success. When we talk about a student's likelihood for success, we can do so with factors we can change, not immutable variables like race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Is a student less likely to succeed because they have poor organizational skills? Is it their ability to manage stress? Is it how they reach out for help when they run into a problem? Or - as is often the case - is it because they feel alienated within a cultural system with people who don't look like them, act like them, and/or come from where they came from (either literally or metaphorically).

To be clear, this isn't always a surplus/deficit issue. Ideally, research that applies noncognitive skills to the equity issue should really examine three questions. Sure, the first inquiry should look at comparisons. For example: do students of color feel the same sense of belonging as white students?

However, this is by no means the end of the inquiry. The second question should look at the relationship to an outcome. Here, is sense of belonging a similar predictor or success for white students and students of color? One could easily hypothesize that the major issue isn't that students feel disconnected right away, but that when they run into a problem, need help, etc., they don't feel like a member of that community. Thus, disengagement or attrition become easier paths to take. As such, it's not the similarity or difference at enrollment, but the correlation with success that differs.

...And what to do about it

The third and final question involves the effectiveness of interventions. Regardless of the previous lines of research, certain interventions can be particularly helpful for students from traditionally underserved populations. For example, Walton and Cohen (2011) found that a brief intervention designed to impact sense of belonging had a significant impact on grades for students of color, but not for white students. Again, this is a situation where students from underserved populations have different perceptions or experiences, and noncognitive factors provide a means by which we can observe and articulate that.

Interventions are, perhaps, the most important part of this equation. After all, most of our research - both published studies and institutional analyses - have gone into understanding and/or predicting student success. Less of it has one into how we actually change and improve rates of success, particularly among students from underserved populations.

One of my close friends and colleagues is Latina. We have presented together many times, and on several occasions she has told the story of her first advising appointment as a college student. She remembers her advisor mentioning that she hadn't done well on her ACT, was a first-generation college student, and had recently become a mother, and that all of these factors would be obstacles to her success in college. Most of all, she remembers walking away from that conversation feeling incredibly disheartened because none of those things were going to change.

The best part about noncognitive factors is that they give us something we can do to improve student success. Institutions often provide additional supports to students from underserved populations, whether they be dedicated advisors for first-generation college students or cultural centers that actively support African American or Latinx students. Indeed, these are vital supports that often yield success, but what institutions need is a systemic - not programmatic - means of understanding and supporting students that goes much further.

...And Who Is Responsible.

Over the last decade or so of working with institutions of higher education on this issue, I've gotten LOTS of questions. When visiting a campus, it is often the case that there is one particularly skeptical faculty member who is probably the bane of any dissertation committee they've ever been asked to join. When the meeting is over, one of my friends at the institution will usually pull me aside and say, "I'm so sorry about them... they're like this in every meeting."

I always respond in the same way: "I never get bothered by the questions. I only get upset when I can't answer them." And it's true, I've been doing this long enough and across so many settings that I've gotten just about every challenging question you can imagine. Frankly, there's not one comes to mind that - at this point - I can't answer with both sound logic and citable evidence. (Again, another reason why I like studying the metaphorical hammer that is noncognitive skills.)

But there was ONE question that troubled me for some time. Someone once asked me (again - paraphrasing here), "isn't this just another means of discrimination? Aren't we just imposing the values of white, affluent people onto students from different backgrounds, but using this as a scientific justification for that?"

It's a really good question, and one on which I had to reflect. It's really quite possible that this could have been the case, and I do think some interpretations and applications of noncognitive skills absolutely could adversely impact students from traditionally underserved populations.

As an example, a 2019 piece in EdWeek by Bettina Love talks about measuring "grit" in African-American girls. Noting all of the historical and cultural challenges that African-Americans have faced, putting the onus of grit on those individuals is misplaced:

Measuring African-American students’ grit while removing no institutional barriers, then watching to see who beats the odds makes for great Hollywood movies ... and leaves us all feeling good because the gritty black kid made it out of the ‘hood. But we fail to acknowledge the hundreds of kids who are left behind because we are rooting for what we are told is an anomaly.

I've mentioned "sense of belonging" throughout this post because I think it's an important example in this noncognitive conversation, particularly as it relates to this point of responsibility. For many educators, noncognitive skills add on to a perspective of remediation. Much like we do with math and English, we see these areas where students have deficits, and we feel that the student needs to work to get those things addressed before they're "ready for college." Under this mindset, higher education spent decades shunting students - many of whom came from under-resourced, under-performing high schools in poor neighborhoods - into a system of developmental education that saw no end.

Under this mindset, we might see a student who feels disconnected and say something like, "oh you need to go join a club!" As Dr. Love points out, in this case, it shouldn't be the student's fault that our system of higher education creates feelings of disconnection so strong that they contribute to leaving college. We need to work better to build climates, cultures, and systems that more effectively welcome, involve, and nurture students from all backgrounds.

The tricky issue here is that the onus isn't always on us exactly. For example, all students need basic organizational skills. They need to attend class and participate effectively. Sure, there are aspects of this that are systematic. We need to clearly communicate expectations and understand that students who lack social and cultural capital (e.g., those from low-income families) may need some explicit articulation of these behaviors, their role in success, and how to develop them. But I do think it's important that, in some cases, we reserve the right to hold meaningful expectations for the student.

If you were tuning into this blog to see a simple answer, I'm sorry. No surprise, but tackling the issues of equity that have built up over centuries of higher education can't be answered simply, not even with noncognitive skills. But for the reasons I've listed here, I do have hope. Noncognitive skills can help us change the way we talk about success. They can identify things we can actually DO to improve success and equity thereof. But perhaps most importantly, they can not only help us identify things students need to be successful, but things we as educators must do to create a more equitable system. As a book my Tia McNair and colleagues puts it, it's not that we need more college-ready students, we need more student-ready colleges.


A few notes before closing. First, I've used a lot of hypotheticals here, and that's for two reasons. One is that they're quicker and easier to read than a thorough review of the research. But the other reason is that the research is sporadic here. Yes, there are a LARGE number of studies that examine the interaction between psychology and sociology when it comes to student success, but while I can point you to a litany of large-scale meta-analyses on the role of socioeconomic status on student achievement, or the relationship between SAT/ACT scores and first-year GPA, or even the correlation between noncognitive factors and retention, there are few comprehensive reviews that provide a conclusive and synthetic empirical finding of how we can apply all we know about noncognitive skills to students from traditionally underserved populations. (Sadly, we continue to underserve them.)

If you do want to read a really interesting review of some intervention research - much of which focuses on students of color - I would definitely refer you to David Yeager and Greg Walton's 2011 piece in the Review of Educational Research, aptly titled, Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. If I'm ever giving a talk or a training and am asked to provide some reading materials beforehand, this is the article I send.


  • Eaton, S. B., & Bean, J. P. (1995). An approach/avoidance behavioral model of college student attrition. Research in higher education, 36(6), 617-645.

  • Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes among minority students. Science, 331, 1447–1451.

  • Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of educational Research, 81(2), 267-301.

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