National Edition

Experts say building skills like grit and perseverance will help increase college readiness in the U.S.

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 11 2012 5:20 p.m. MST

Students walking the sidewalks at BYU-Idaho between the Manwaring Center and the Smith Building Sept. 13, 2010.

Michael Lewis,

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Plenty of U.S. students are getting into college, but only 55 percent of them are getting out with diplomas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The United States ranks ninth in college enrollment among industrial nations, but last in completion rates.

The disparity leaves experts wondering whether "soft skills" like grit, independence and perseverance might have as much to do with finishing college as IQ scores and academic prowess. As a result, schools across the nation are taking a hard look at ways to increase college readiness.

On the academic front, ACT test scores show that less than one-third of U.S. students who take the test are ready for college in all four core subjects areas — English, reading, science and math. Besides looking at ways to increase learning, educators are taking a hard look at life skills that help students succeed in high school and college, said Harvard education professor Mandy Savitz-Romer, co-author of the book "Ready, Willing and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success."

News outlets have been rife with stories about students whose independence has been smothered by the "helicopter parenting" phenomenon — too much help from home. Meanwhile, some kids — first-generation college students, often — aren't getting enough encouragement and support, from home or school. Graduation rates for students whose parents didn't attend college are 29 percentage points lower than those of students whose parents attended, according to a 2010 National Center for Education study.

Building persistence

In "Ready, Willing and Able," Savitz-Romer wrote that first-generation college students need better support in developing a "college-going identity" — a belief that success in college is really possible for them. They also need opportunities to develop self-regulatory skills, such as planning and goal-setting.

First-generation college students are not less capable than other students, but the challenges of college life tend to hit them harder because all aspects of the college experience are new to their families, she said.

Despite federal and state initiatives that address financial and academic needs of first-generation college students, the United States hasn't seen big gains in its educational attainment, said Savitz-Romer. When students who can meet college entrance requirements don't make it to graduation day, it makes sense to look beyond academic needs and work on skills that help students persist through the difficulties of college, she said.

Romer's book focuses on helping students develop "self-regulatory skills" — like being able to organize time, delay gratification and manage emotions.

"We haven't really emphasized this in schools, as there has been such a push on academic achievement," she said, adding that the prevailing attitude has been that character training should be done at home.

And, it must begin there, Savitz-Romer said, because acquisition of self-regulatory skills peaks between the ages of 3 and 5. Elementary school teachers have traditionally played a continuing role in teaching students to regulate impulses, though. They do this as they teach children to raise hands before speaking, follow class rules and manage their behavior, she said.

Help from high schools

Now, secondary school teachers need to help students developing character habits that will help them in college, Savitz-Romer said. This can happen in subtle ways. Teachers can structure assignments to give students more responsibility for their own learning; help students learn organization skills for getting through homework; and teach methods for managing deadlines, she said.

School counselors can talk about potential challenges of college life, and help students plan for them, too. And, teachers can pay closer attention to the messages they send their students.

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