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College kids start off behind, need ‘grit’ to succeed

In this Aug. 19 2013 phostudents walk between Morris Library Faner Hall campus Southern Illinois University Carbondale Ill. Many Illinois'

In this Aug. 19, 2013 photo, students walk in between Morris Library and Faner Hall on the campus of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. Many of Illinois' public universities are enrolling larger freshmen classes this fall than last year. And even some of those with smaller groups of freshmen on campuses this fall still have freshmen classes that are among their largest ever. (AP Photo/The Southern, Paul Newton) ORG XMIT: ILCAR502

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Updated: October 30, 2013 6:05AM

My uncle often tells the story of how he was informed of his admission to law school so late that he didn’t have time to get his books before the first day of class. This, as anyone who has been through the 1L experience knows, is a problem. My uncle likes to joke that he fell behind on that first day and has been trying to catch up ever since.

I’m reminded of that story each fall as students head to college. Sadly, many of them will be behind before they even arrive.


First, there’s the problem of money. In my years as an educator, my colleagues and I have had to: arrange transportation to college for students whose parents couldn’t afford to take time off to get them there; find suitcases for young men who would have otherwise brought their belongings to campus in garbage bags; and work out myriad financial challenges ranging from buying books to assisting with tuition. All this before our students even entered their first college classroom.

Then, there are the academic hurdles. According to the results of last year’s ACT, the standardized test for college admissions, the vast majority of high school graduates are ill-prepared for college academics. In fact, the most recently released ACT data revealed that only 25 percent of test-takers, and just 5 percent of African-American students, met all four college-readiness benchmarks.

And if money issues and academic deficiencies aren’t enough of a burden, kids from tough backgrounds often arrive on campus behind in cultural capital as well.

Recently, the New York Times ran companion pieces by Justin Porter and Travis Reginal, friends from Jackson, Miss., who are headed back for their sophomore years at Harvard and Yale, respectively. Both suffered throughout their freshman year from feelings of guilt at not achieving the high marks they expected, at leaving their families and communities behind, and felt uneasy about being so different from their overwhelmingly more privileged classmates. Despite the best efforts of their universities, both felt that they were outsiders and that in some way they were lagging behind their peers.

But feeling or falling behind, as Porter and Reginal prove, doesn’t mean failing.

In his book “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough describes a key factor in student success as “grit” — a concept popularized by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth. In his study, “What Role Does Grit Play in the Academic Success of Black Male Collegians,” Ohio State professor Terrell Strayhorn found that having grit is directly linked to the likelihood of success in college.

Grit is that je ne sais quoi of personality traits; the “It Factor” that enables a person to be resilient, persistent and willing to play catch-up. Happily, research suggests that grit can be nurtured within young people. In cultivating noncognitive skills like grit, we can teach students how to manage everything college throws at them. Developing strong positive school cultures; valuing and rewarding tenacity, as well as achievement; and allowing kids to stumble and find their way back up are just a few ways that primary and secondary schools can promote grit. I’ve seen the results of such practices: high school graduates, whose grit has empowered them to address financial aid crises, overcome low test scores and leverage a paucity of cultural capital to find success in college.

The reality is that, through no fault of their own, today’s students are likely to start college behind in one way or another. We aren’t going to wipe away a legacy of poverty, miseducation and inequity in time to help them. So my advice, as college students hit campus this fall, is to remember the lesson I learned from my uncle many years ago: Most of us fall behind, but the best of us never stop working to catch up.

Tim King is the founder of Urban Prep Academies, a network of charter schools for boys.

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