Mitch Daniels: Let’s value grit over grades

In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2016, a student looks at questions during a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School. The current version of the SAT college entrance exam is having its final run, when thousands of students nationwide will sit, squirm or stress through the nearly four-hour reading, writing and math test. A new revamped version debuts in March. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Resuming a debate that has arisen occasionally in the past, some U.S. colleges have announced that they will no longer require applicants to provide standardized test scores, but instead will look to high school grade-point averages and subjective information.

The institution I lead, Purdue University, will not be joining that group. A review of all the data tells us that no admissions criteria that ignores either the SAT or ACT exam can predict with equivalent accuracy a student's college performance, or his or her best placement level in critical freshman courses such as mathematics. Accepting a high school "A" at face value and enrolling a student in a calculus course beyond his or her capabilities does the student a serious disservice by risking an avoidable failure.

Still, assigning greater weight to high school grade-point averages has its merits. In many cases, the GPA proves to be a reliable indicator of discipline, persistence and resilience — characteristics necessary to succeed at the college level (to say nothing of adult life). In the current vernacular, these traits are often collectively called “grit.” Enrollment experts agree on its significance. The problem is in knowing when a high GPA reflects it and when it doesn’t.

The challenge for today's college admissions officer is like the one faced by corporate recruiters: In an era of rampant grade inflation, which grades can you believe? Businesses began learning years ago not to put much stock in diplomas from schools where the average graduate's GPA is 3.5 or higher and may not be at all indicative of real learning or readiness for the modern workplace.

Last year, researchers reported that nearly half of high school seniors in 2016 — 47 percent — graduated with an "A" average. That’s up from 38.9 percent in 1998. As ordinary students increasingly “earn” higher marks, teachers help top students stand out by granting them extra credit of various kinds. The result: It is now not unusual for colleges to see high school GPA averages above a “perfect” 4.0. Soon, it will be time to get real and reset the scale with its top at either 5.0 or 6.0. This GPA inflation occurred while national ACT and SAT scores were going down.

It is increasingly clear that, though a strong high school GPA may indicate “grit,” it can also just be a sign of lax grading — producing not resilience but its opposite.

The emotional fragility of many young people today is, by now, a well-documented phenomenon. College students' psychological problems, and genuine mental illness, are very real; every school I know of approaches the matter with utter seriousness and responsibility. Running a college necessitates ever-growing numbers of counselors and therapists, but keeping up can be difficult. Requests for appointments start almost as soon as a new class arrives. This fall at our school, at least one freshman sought a counseling session before setting foot on campus.

The trend has spawned a host of explanatory theories. Many have pointed to parental overprotectiveness as the primary cause, and, no doubt, that is a real factor. In the new book "The Coddling of the American Mind," co-authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write that many young people, having too rarely handled problems or adversity on their own, now instinctively run, looking for an adult at the first whiff of difficulty.

On campuses, one sees plenty of support for the authors' contention. Calls and emails from worried parents — not only to the student but directly to university offices — are a daily fact of life. The phrase “helicopter parent” is no longer adequate; now you hear about “lawnmower parents.”

Many problems brought to our counselors are of social origin — loneliness, cyberbullying, just plain homesickness — but many others stem from academic anxiety, and small wonder. Freshmen who rarely saw a "B" during their K-12 years can be severely jolted when handed back a paper marked “C.” Too many participation trophies when growing up is a lousy preparation for life at a reasonably rigorous university, let alone in the real world beyond.

Of course, one easy solution for colleges is just to go with the grade-inflation flow, and obviously many institutions of higher education have chosen that route. Places determined instead to stretch and challenge students, aiming to help them achieve their full potential, will have to take on the trickier task of identifying and fostering true grit, providing quality counseling everywhere it's needed without worsening what is already an overly therapeutic culture.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the College Board comes up with a new GPA — Grit Potential Assessment. I guarantee you, our university will be the first customer.

Mitch Daniels

Mitch Daniels, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.