Grit to Graduate, part 1: College Success

July 26, 2012

As dispiriting as our nation’s math scores can appear as evidence of fading international competitiveness, our position at the top of one ranking might be the most alarming statistic of all: The United States has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world. (Both trends are even more pronounced when income is taken into account). Even once they have successfully enrolled at a college or university, American students – especially those from low-income households – are less likely than their international peers to receive a degree.

We have a long way to go in improving the quality of public education so that high school students develop the academic skills they need to tackle undergraduate or community college work. But regardless of his or her preparation, no student overcomes the challenges of post-secondary education – including the responsibilities of independence and time management as well as enhanced levels of academic rigor – without hitting a few speed bumps.

Can students identify their own opportunities for growth, ask for help, and persist in college despite unexpected challenges? Part of the answer depends on a well-informed college matching process that aligns school resources with student needs. Education entrepreneurs are recognizing that buoys need to extend beyond college campuses, too, especially for students who are the first in their families to have made it there: Ventures like Beyond 12, Mytonomy and ConnectEDU bolster students’ development of the tactical skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Using a smartphone alarm to wake up on time and following a syllabus diligently are just two examples of “the small things that really count.”

On a broader, systemic level, NewSchools has partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create the College Achievement Network (CAN). CAN brings together charter school organizations from 22 states plus the District of Columbia to address a common goal: making sure low-income students are prepared to enter and successfully graduate from college. CAN’s holistic approach to student development – which spans academic, financial, social and emotional skills – embraces the belief that preparation for college cannot be fully captured in a high school diploma, much less an SAT score.

Our understanding of college success is incomplete unless we account for individual grit, the reserve of self-reliance and persistence upon which students can draw in the toughest moments of young adulthood – failing a course, growing homesick, or preparing to discern a career path. Even the strongest external resources cannot compensate for what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset of risk aversion or self-doubt in the face of intellectual challenge. Through our investments and other efforts, we will continue to investigate the factors that affect the way children feel as they learn, and how students’ dispositions towards effort, failure, and growth affect academic performance.

Stay tuned for whether I believe mindsets – and grit – are innate or malleable. Hint: A “Think Marshmallows” sticker adorns the keyboard of my laptop.