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College readiness includes ‘grit’

Only 9 percent of low-income students complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24. American RadioWorks reporter Emily Hanford looks at the importance of Grit, Luck and Money in determining who persists to a degree.

Grit is as important as intelligence in determining success, believes Angela Lee Duckworth, a Penn psychology professor who’s analyzing the role of grit in college completion in a Gates-funded study.

She defines grit as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” In a paper, she writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

Grit can be learned, Duckworth believes.

It takes more grit to earn an associate’s degree than a bachelor’s, her research shows. ”If you’re going to get through a two-year college where the attrition rate is 50 or maybe even 75 percent, maybe you do need more grit to surmount all those obstacles,” says Duckworth.

Houston’s YES Prep, a high-performing charter school for low-income minority students, is trying to help first-generation college students cope with challenges and persist to a degree. Even academically strong students have trouble in college, reports Hanford.

. . . at YES, where most of the students are from poor families, close to 70 percent of students score as well on the SAT as students from middle-income families, and they score significantly better than other minority students in America.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: Less than 10 percent of YES Prep alumni take remedial classes when they get to college. Nationally, as many as 60 percent of incoming college students have to take some sort of remedial class.

. . .  Based on academic preparation alone, one could reasonably expect that 80 or 90 percent of the students would graduate from college.

But that didn’t happen.

Nearly all YES Prep graduates go to college, usually to four-year institutions. Only 40 percent complete a college degree in four years; 28 percent drop out and the rest are still trying to finish.

YES Prep gives students a lot of support to get them ready for college — maybe too much. In college, the support system is gone. Often their parents can’t help.

The school has hired two counselors to work with alumni and created partnerships with several private colleges that can provide counseling and support to first-generation college students.

Among Hanford’s profiles of persistence is Paul Longoria, a 2007 YES graduate, who enrolled in community college when his first-choice college, Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, turned him down. YES Prep counselors were worried.

According to the data YES has on how its students do at various kinds of colleges, students who go to community colleges have the hardest time graduating. Only a handful of YES students start at community colleges, but about 13 percent who start at a four-year school end up transferring to a community college. Less than 10 percent of those who transfer to community colleges earn an associate’s degree, according to YES Prep data. Less than 5 percent end up earning a bachelor’s.

Ignoring his counselors’ advice, Longoria went to San Jacinto Community College in Houston for one year, then transferred to Sam Houston State.  Despite studying a “transfer sheet” to find the right community college courses, he learned many of his credits wouldn’t transfer.

“You almost feel cheated,” he says. “I put in the time, I put in the effort, I surely put in the money. And you’re telling me that it didn’t matter.”

He retook courses and began a criminal justice major. After two years, he switched to  kinesiology and transferred to the University of Houston, which had a strong program. Once again he had to repeat some classes, costing him another year in college. He expects to earn his bachelor’s degree in December 2013, more than six years after he completed high school.