Can Colleges Assess Students’ Character Development?

Original article from

by Mark Liston

The Character Growth Index is a quantitative, easily administered assessment of social-emotional character development.

Why measure student character development? Today college admissions fiercely compete for students. For many, necessity dictates that solvency transcends mission as students cannot learn if the school closes. With many higher education institutions choosing to be test-optional, assessment as a component of admissions is on life support.

Why then discuss a measure of social-emotional character development (SECD)? What interest would an emphasis on developing character have for prospective students? Social research (Segal, 2017) indicates:

  • Millennials care about change/innovation, activism (their “cause record”), experiences (vs. materialism and institutions, including universities and religions), and peers. Put in one word, they care about character and not their parents’ brand: Being nice, following social convention, etc.
  • Millennials recognize their exploding levels of social anxiety and depression. They are aware their opioid overdose death rates increased by more than 500% between 1999 and 2017, and deaths caused by synthetic opioids increased by a staggering 6,000% (TFAH, 2019). They struggle to find answers but intuitively know their character is the key.
  • Students entering college know they need peace, self-control, grit, courage, and resilience to accomplish what they care about. While most wish their studies were easier, they get that “the struggle is real” and is part of the process of adulting.
  • The college many students seek has a non-traditional culture that addresses these needs as well as their academic goals.

Many Christian schools include aspects of SECD in their mission and are actively innovating in response to student feedback. But are these new efforts effective? Student feedback is valuable but are they truly developing their social-emotional character?

What is needed is a quantitative, easily administered assessment of SECD. If desired, is such an assessment available, valid, and practical?

In 2010 the Liston Group sought such an assessment to determine if a SECD curriculum we created was effective. No test claimed to measure social-emotional or character development over time.

Because evaluating my curriculum was to be my doctoral dissertation topic, I was near panic. Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, McDonnell Chair of Character Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and my advisor, blithely suggested I change my dissertation to develop such a measure (Berkowitz, 2014). In my ignorance, I agreed.

Oh, the learning curve! It continues to this day, but the 2011–14 conceptualization by the top scholars in the field, three field tests, and the validation study led to successful construction of the Character Growth Index (CGI; Liston, 2014)… and my PhD. CGI has been independently validated in Turkish (Kaya & Eksi, 2017) and is used in 10 nations globally.

The table below illustrates that CGI assesses up to 20 character strengths conceptualized in four dimensions.

Four Dimensions of Character with 20 Strengths


 Character Strengths


Respect Honesty       HumilityCooperation     Peace     Fairness
Responsibility Wisdom     PerseveranceCourage      Self-Control     Openness
Compassion or Caring Love        KindnessForgiveness    Gratitude     Generosity
Motivation Creativity     CuriositySpirituality    Optimism     Purpose

Universities administer CGI with one link they distribute to students. Data is made available as a spreadsheet; color report of all strengths, dimensions, demographics, and overall SECD score; and a white paper analysis. Cost is reasonable.

Data from over 12,000 students is being analyzed by a team of three researchers to publish further validation studies and update CGI’s algorithms and norms. More information is available at or by contacting