The Road to College Success

The importance of higher education has never been clearer. Educational attainment—the number of years a person spends in school—strongly predicts adult earnings, as well as health and civic engagement. Yet relative to other developed nations, educational attainment in the United States is lagging, with young Americans who heretofore led the world in completing postsecondary degrees now falling behind their global peers.

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The United States previously led the world in postsecondary completion rates but now lags far behind its global peers.

Researchers and policy makers seeking to increase college graduation rates are exploring whether abilities that go beyond cognitive skills can support students’ persistence and success. A committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine was asked to identify interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies that are related to undergraduate persistence and success and to examine how to assess these competencies.

The committee’s report, Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies (2017), identifies promising competencies, offers guidance on assessing them, and cautions against high-stakes use of currently available assessments.

This video, based on the report, introduces three competencies students should have that help reduce drop-out rates and support students’ persistence and success at college.


Promising Competencies

Based on the research, eight competencies were identified as malleable and related to college success. The first three show the most promising evidence.

A sense of belonging:
a student’s sense that he or she belongs at a college, fits in well, and is socially integrated.
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A growth mindset:
a student’s belief that his or her own intelligence is not a fixed entity, but a malleable quality that can grow and improve.
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Utility goals and values:
personal goals and values that a student perceives to be directly linked to the achievement of a future, desired end.
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Behaviors related to conscientiousness:
behaviors related to self-control, hard work, persistence, and achievement orientation.
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Academic self-efficacy:
a student’s belief that he or she can succeed in academic tasks.
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Intrinsic goals and interest:
personal goals that a student experiences as rewarding in and of themselves, linked to strong interest.
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Prosocial goals and values:
the desire to promote the well-being or development of other people or of domains that transcend the self.
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Positive future self:
a positive image or personal narrative constructed by a student to represent what kind of person he or she will be in the future.
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Interventions that require very little time and money to implement have helped students develop these eight competencies. Some of these interventions have been particularly effective for underrepresented student groups that are most at risk for academic failure.

For more information about interventions see Chapter Two and the Appendix B/Intervention Table for even more detailed information.



This report focuses primarily on competencies that 2- and 4-year institutions and faculty members can develop and assess to improve their students’ college persistence and completion. This focus reflects the strong evidence that increased educational attainment is related to higher earnings, greater health, and civic engagement.

Having identified promising competencies, the committee considered how college and university stakeholders—such as faculty, administrators, and guidance staff—could use assessments of the competencies. High-quality assessments could potentially support student success in many ways—for example, by helping institutions and researchers measure whether interventions are working, and by helping institutions to identify students who would benefit from particular support programs or services.

Assessments of intra- and interpersonal competencies should meet the same high standards as those of cognitive competencies. These include reliability and precision; validity, the extent to which an assessment measures what is intended and provides sound information for a given purpose; and fairness, the extent to which an assessment provides all intended examinees the same unencumbered opportunity to demonstrate their competency and carries the same meaning for all students. However, many current assessments of the eight identified competencies fall short in showing evidence related to these three standards and predominantly use self-report surveys. Such surveys have well-known limitations.

Given these limitations, the committee recommends that institutions not make high-stakes decisions carrying serious consequences for individuals (e.g., admissions decisions) based solely on current assessments of the eight identified competencies.