When Brenda Marin Rodriguez first came to UC Davis in 2009, she was absolutely sure that she wanted to major in the sciences. However, as she sat in on a real chemistry lecture she claimed that she felt completely “mystified”, and knew that her high school in Puerto Rico hadn’t prepared her for college-level chemistry. Fast-forward four years and in June 2013 she is an intern in the laboratory of Catherine Dulac at Harvard University, supported by an HHMI Capstone award. Marin-Rodriguez also won one of nine Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A fellowship that provides $46,500 per year for up to four years to outstanding students from underrepresented groups pursuing graduate studies in life sciences. Marin-Rodriguez accredits her success to programs like the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program and mentors.
Meanwhile, BUSP still helps students from underrepresented groups pursue degrees in the sciences. However, they started off the year with nearly 60 freshmen, but, now that number has dropped down to half. Reasons for the loss of students bounce between the BUSPers dropping out or not meeting the standards of the program.
Is it the program’s fault for the loss of students? Why was the program so effective in helping Marin-Rodriguez but not the 30 drop-outs? What are the differences between the two? What factors made Marin-Rodriguez so persistent but not the drop-outs? What factors affect how persistent or “gritty” a student is?
Grit is the endurance in a person to finish a personal goal to completion. An example of grit would be the situation of a pre-med student staying up late to finish their math and chemistry homework. The student may be tired and, for the moment, may just want to watch Netflix and go to bed early. However, the student has already set a goal for the far future that they want to accomplish; to become a doctor. That student displays grit because he/she will do anything to reach that goal, even if it means putting aside temporary pleasures.
It’s this example that explains why grit is a better indicator of future success in students than intelligence. For decades, researchers agreed that intelligence was the best indicator of an individual’s future success. However, there is growing evidence that disproves that. In a study conducted at an Ivy League School, Angela Duckworth found that students who possessed the highest grit scores, not the most intelligent ones, also had the highest GPAs (Duckworth, 2012).
Now it is time to put this new information to efficient use by helping the next generation of students. Furthermore, if we care about improving the student’s chances of academic success, then we must understand the factors that contribute to a student’s grit.
First Year Seminars
Typically the transition between high school and college is a period for freshmen to get a feel for the campus. They need to understand what is required of them so that they can earn academic success. This is where the need for first-year seminars stems from.
First-year seminars should teach incoming freshmen the study habits that will make them successful upperclassmen. High school students come into college believing that their old study habits will be enough to get a high GPA in college. However, they don’t know that learning in high school isn’t the same as in a university. In college, learning happens outside the lecture hall, yet students must keep up with the professor’s pace in order to do well on midterms. Possessing the grit to stay on track is a sign of a successful student.
However, first-year students don’t come to college completely unaware of what awaits them. It is well-known that the first year of college can be so stressful that it causes students to gain weight, known as the freshman fifteen. As a result, incoming freshmen are eager to learn about ways to stay healthy and stay balanced in college. First-year seminars fulfill that need by informing students about healthy habits that they should adopt. Also, first-year seminars inform students on the location and cost of the nearest gym on campus, where to see a dietician or nutritionist, and other information critical to the student’s health.
A survey of students at 45 institutions studied how first-year seminars impact grit. Study skills proved to have “substantial impact on early intention to persist” (Porter et al, 2006). This evidence agrees with this theory that freshmen need to have their study skills mock those of an upperclassmen. It should be the goal of first-year seminars to help freshmen in this endeavor so that they are successful in their college courses. The same survey supports the second theory as well, and shows evidence that health education in first-year seminars also had a substantial impact on a student’s grit (Porter et al, 2006).
It is up to high schools to use this information and restructure their curriculum to give their students a head-start. Integrating programs that prepare students to change their study habits and keep track of their personal health should begin in high school. Then, when the student actually needs to use those skills in college, they are already at the student’s disposal. Parents can also take the initiative by helping their students to research what freshmen seminars offer at each of the students’ prospective college choices. So when the time comes for students to go to college, they will know where to go for help. Developing these skills early on is essential to improving the students’ grit because they will have less to worry about, and thus will achieve greater success in college.
Aside from first-year seminars, the student’s family income also impacts a student’s grit. However, unlike first-year seminars, the family’s income can help or hurt a student’s grit.
A family’s higher than average income positively affects a student’s grit. One reason may be that the family is simply able to afford a better quality education for the student. They can afford to send the student off to expensive private schools, or educational projects and conferences. When the student shows signs of struggling, they can afford better quality textbooks, tutors, and programs designed to help the student conduct better study habits. As a result, the student learns that their academic goals are more attainable and possess more persistence to accomplish those goals.
Another reason maybe that their parents are gritty role models. High income families likely make their money after graduating college with exceptional grades and landing better paying jobs. The parents know that students with exceptional GPAs have a lot of grit because they used to be those gritty students. Consequently, those parents make it an obligation to display the benefits of possessing a lot of grit to their students. The parents are living proof that the more grit a person has, then the better their academic success will be in the future. As a result, the students learn the importance of academic success and want to be gritty like their parents.
However, a family’s low income can negatively impact a student. This may be that parents can only afford a less than average quality education for the student. Most likely, the family is only able to afford housing in a community with other low income families. Furthermore, a low income community has average or less than average quality of teachers, programs, textbooks, etc. The student has to use whatever tools are financially available to become academically successful.
This situation sets students up for failure. They can choose to take on a job to afford better resources, if they don’t already have a job just to support their family. However, taking on a job takes time away from studying and may defeat the purpose of trying to become more academically successful. They can try to find local scholarships that will support their endeavors, but it is difficult to compete against students from high income families who have more advantages than they do. In terms of grit, low-income families produce less gritty students. One study supports this theory and claims that students from low income families, “tend to be … less likely to receive financial support from parents, and more likely to have multiple obligations outside college, like family and work, that limit their full participation in the college experience. Research has shown that these factors lower students’ chances of persisting to graduate” (Engle et al, 2008).
For the few exceptionally gritty students who have programs to support them, college is another struggle. The reason is because they can’t afford to be in college. The same study shows “the mean amount of unmet need for low-income, first-generation students is nearly $6,000 (before loans), which represents half of their median annual income of $12,100” (Engle et al, 2008). The students have to take out loans and accept a considerable amount of debt just to get through college. Debt that they may or may not be able to pay back once they graduate. In this light, going to college is worse than simply staying low-income. In addition, there’s no guarantee that their hard work will allow them to compete with students from high income families for graduate school, medical school, the job market etc.
This same train of thought may explain why many low-income students don’t graduate and drop out. The same study supports with the data that, “after six years, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students had earned bachelor’s degrees compared to 55 percent of their more advantaged peers” (Engle et al, 2008).
This research indicates that there is truth to the idea that poverty and wealth are more like cycles than stages. This is the result of many factors beyond a student’s grit. In this light, how successful a person becomes isn’t purely dependent just on their grit, but simply what world they were born into. Unfortunately, these cycles determine the flow of money, power, and influence a person has in society. This means that the few born into advantaged families, not necessarily the grittiest, dominate a society of mostly average and disadvantaged people. Many factors cause this domino effect, but the most important one leads back to education.
Therefore, educators need to make it a priority to help more students from disadvantaged backgrounds develop more grit. Of course there are also factors outside of educators’ realm of control that will dictate how gritty a student is capable of becoming. And even with all the resources available to a student, there is no guarantee that it will, without a doubt, help the student become grittier. Still, educators should see it as their responsibility to give students their best possible chance using whatever resources are at their disposal; because if the educators don’t help the students, who will? Schools in low-income communities need to offer no or low cost programs that cater to minorities and students from low-income families that offer them opportunities to conferences and educational projects. Schools should also encourage students to apply to local and national scholarships such as Quest Bridge, that cater especially to low-income students. In addition, educators should teach students to strengthen their college applications by volunteering, pursuing extracurricular activities, etc. Educators can even make it apart of their school curriculum and/ or requirements to graduate to ensure that when their students leave high school they leave prepared.
An immense amount of research from a variety of sources supports the theory that grit is a better indicator of success than intelligence. Furthermore, it’s especially important because the link between grit and academic success can help explain several other factors like family income and first-year seminars that can impact a student’s grit. Using this information to help students become grittier, can only improve their chances of future success in college and the job market. Low-income students require more opportunities and additional financial aid to cope with college costs and obstacles outside their control. Incoming freshmen need seminars that give a real glimpse into college life. However, the most important indication of these findings is the amount of actual improvements that they can make to students’ circumstances.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelley, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perserverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92(6), 1087-1101
Engle, J., Tinto, V. (2008) Moving Beyond Access College Success For Low-Income, First-Generation Students. Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. Non-Journal. Retrieved from: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED504448
Fell, A. (2013) UC Davis Biosci Major Wins Hughes Fellowship for Grad School. UC Davis Egghead. Retrieved from: http://blogs.ucdavis.edu/egghead/2013/03/14/uc-davis-biosci-major-wins-hughes-fellowship-for-grad-school/
Hanford, E. (2012, October 2). How important is grit in student achievement? KQED News. Retrieved from: http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/10/02/how-important-is-grit-in-student-achievement/
Porter, S.R., Swing, R.L., (2006). Understanding how first-year seminars affect persistence. Research in Higher Education. 47(1), 89-109