That Special Something

Defining and aligning the noncognitive skills that college students need and employers require

By Bari Walsh, on April 30, 2015 3:07 PM
That Special Something: Defining and aligning the noncognitive skills that college students need and employers require #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

It takes more than brainpower to succeed in school, in a career, and in life. It takes a certain mindset — a constellation of traits, behaviors, and attitudes collectively referred to as noncognitive skills. But what, exactly, are the noncognitive factors that matter, especially when it comes to college success and a strong start in adulthood? (And, for that matter, what does “noncognitive factors” even mean?)

A new summary report [PDF] by HGSE senior lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer and Boston College associate professor Heather Rowan-Kenyon is trying to answer just those questions. The report describes a research project aimed at identifying the noncognitive skills — also called social-emotional and affective (SEA) skills — that are most important for college and career. The report also looks at how those skills are being developed and assessed.

Based on their review of the literature, the researchers developed three broad categories of SEA skills and traits that are relevant to success in academic and employment settings:

  • Approach to learning or work
    Sample of specific skills and behaviors: Attention control, goal orientation, finding and using support services, managing time, task analysis, and strategy development
  • Intrapersonal skills
    Sample of specific skills and behaviors: Adaptability, conscientiousness, managing emotions, self awareness and evaluation, self direction, stress management
  • Social skills
    Sample of specific skills and behaviors: Active listening, belonging, collaborative skills, cultural awareness, empathy, understanding the needs of others

The big takeaway:
As Savitz-Romer and Rowan-Kenyon found, SEA factors are defined, valued, and promoted differently in higher education and employment contexts, a disconnection that serves neither sector’s needs. Among their conclusions:

  • College administrators and faculty place more emphasis on skills and behaviors in the approach to learning category, while employers emphasize social skills. Higher education emphasizes specific constructs, such as self-efficacy and self-awareness, while employers emphasize broad terms like leadership and project management.
  • The vast majority of interventions to promote SEA factors happen in college settings, rather than in work settings, and are usually run by student affairs offices and targeted toward helping students succeed in college; they’re typically not connected to academic work or to lifelong success.
  • There is no shared responsibility for developing SEA factors to improve both college completion and career readiness.
  • Many employers hire people based on perceived SEA factors, but college interventions are designed to enhance behaviors that employers don’t value as highly. In other words, employers assume candidates already possess the SEA skills they value, but colleges are not specifically cultivating those skills.  
  • The behaviors that are desirable in both settings may rely on the same core skills. But programs designed to support SEA factors suffer from a lack of clarity around the basic terms and mechanisms, creating the impression that colleges and employers want different things.

“Although we are seeing greater reference to these types of skills in the media and among those working in higher education and the workforce, growth in this area is hindered by the fact that these skills are not yet well defined or understood by those in the field,” says Savitz-Romer. “In a field that lacks coherence, at the very least this research will provide a guide for better and more efficient practices and programs that align these skills with college completion and college readiness across two sectors that share an interest in seemingly similar skills.”

The report’s key recommendations:

  • College programming should prioritize core SEA skills that promote success in both college and career, such as attention control, goal orientation, adaptability, and self-efficacy.
  • Colleges should widen the scope and purpose of current interventions so they are providing support to all students — focused on career readiness, located within academic settings, and aligned to coursework.
  • We need to learn more about the effectiveness of using technology to promote SEA factors.
  • We need to develop assessments that better measure SEA factors associated with college completion and career readiness. Assessments should measure the specific skill, behavior, or disposition being targeted, in addition to measuring its mastery through longer-term outcomes.
  • We need to better align the needs of colleges and employment through intentional partnerships that bolster the relationship between the skills students develop and the skills employers expect.


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Faculty in this article

Mandy Savitz-Romer

With a specific focus on college and career readiness for low-income and first-generation college students, Mandy Savitz-Romer examines the ways in which schools and community-based programs provide supports that promote personal and academic development, and opportunities for youth.