Non-cognitive Skills and College Success

Getting into college is a milestone for Breakthrough Silicon Valley students. It’s what they’ve worked toward for their six years with the program. But just getting there isn’t enough. Only one in ten low-income students will earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25, as compared to half of students from higher-income families. And graduation is what really counts.

From a purely economic perspective, the stakes are high. A Pew Research Center study found that, “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment…young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education.” In 2012 (the year surveyed), the earnings gap between millennial generation college and high school graduates was $17,500 a year – especially striking, given that the median annual income for a high school graduate between the ages of 25 and 32 was only $28,000. The gap has grown with each subsequent generation in the modern era.

Despite increased attention to the issue, graduation rates for low-income students continue to lag behind their peers from high-income backgrounds.

All of this adds up to make Breakthrough graduates’ achievements extraordinary. The first cohort to earn baccalaureate degrees (BSV Class of 2011) has an 82% college graduation rate at the four-year mark, with the others still pursuing their degrees. This rate surpasses the six-year graduation rate for the highest income students measured in a National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities report.

So why do some low-income students persist to graduation while others do not? It’s a complicated question. One point on which many experts agree: academic preparation alone isn’t enough.

Other factors, alternatively called non-cognitive or social and emotional skills, such as self-management, relationship skills, and social awareness seem to be key. These are competencies that guide students in making responsible decisions, working effectively as part of a team, seeking help when they need it, rebounding from setbacks, and advocating successfully on their own behalf.

A recent Atlantic article profiled a Chicago high school, serving low-income students, that focuses on social and emotional learning. One former student, now a senior at Trinity College in Connecticut, points to social and emotional skills as being crucial to tackling the challenges he’s encountered at this selective liberal arts college. “When I hit barriers, I persisted and kept moving forward. I took advantage of tutoring, the counseling center, the math center, the writing center, anything that could help.” It is this resiliency and self-advocacy that successful students draw upon when they encounter setbacks, such as that first difficult class when suddenly they feel like the only person without the answers. Students may be academically prepared, but it’s the non-cognitive skills that get them through the difficult moments and keep them moving forward.

Reports (including this one) suggest that after school programs can play a significant role in social and emotional learning. Breakthrough students graduate from college, and perhaps one reason is the social and emotional skill set they’ve developed before they even set foot on campus. Take a Breakthrough math class. Students don’t just build math skills. They collaborate, ask questions, and share perspectives. If the answer doesn’t add up, they circle back and rethink. Sometimes roadblocks persist and that’s when they seek out the guidance they need. Breakthrough students learn that success isn’t just reflected in a correct answer. It comes with the courage to embrace a new environment, tackle a challenging problem, learn from a mistake, and ultimately, persevere toward a long term goal, like college graduation. 

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