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

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 6:56 p.m. MDT

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

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.

Sometimes teachers' words cause students to assume that college success comes from being born smart. Through careful word choices, teachers can stress that all students are capable of learning, if they apply themselves. Focusing compliments and rewards on effort instead of natural ability helps.

Vocabulary for success

Author Scott Seider studied various approaches to teaching character at school in his book "Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success." The book is geared toward all students, not just first-generation college students.

"The research is very strong in showing a correlation between what are called performance strengths — perseverance and grit — and academic success," said Seider, an education professor at Boston University.

Students with high levels of perseverance and grit have the highest GPAs and best attendance, and are more likely to be accepted to the most prestigious schools. And, students who feel highly connected to a community within their school are also more likely to be successful, he said.

For his book, Seider studied three high-performing urban schools in Boston. Each school approached character training in a different way. One focused on moral character, another on civic character, and the third on developing performance abilities, such as perseverance and grit.

The schools carved out regular time for readings and discussions about their chosen values, and Seider's research showed that those values begin to permeate classroom talk in all subject areas. In each school, a vernacular for talking about character strengths arose, and everyone understood it.

Many U.S. schools list character values such as respect and reliability as part of their teaching missions, Seider said. But, few schools carry those values into the way academic curriculum is presented. At the schools he studied, having a shared vocabulary about character strengths made it easier for desired attributes to be built upon in every class, every day.

For example, when a student at the school that stressed performance abilities struggled with a writing assignment, the English teacher could use the school's character vocabulary as a useful shorthand for giving encouragement. Since students had clear understanding of what words like "grit," "determination" and "perseverance" meant, their power to motivate was heightened.

Sense of purpose

Seider used surveys, field notes, student achievement data and interviews to draw conclusions about how school culture affected success for all students at the three Boston schools. His surveys of students showed that they did broaden their understanding and interest in the character values each school stressed. And, students' academic success increased.

All three schools serve low-income student populations, yet achieve impressive results on state assessments and student acceptance into colleges and universities. School leaders cite their emphasis on character development as a key lever in achieving these results, Seider wrote in an education blog. Working together on character growth also contributed to a sense of pride and community purpose at the schools, Seider told the Deseret News.

"Students who feel a strong sense of purpose are more likely to be successful in academics, and all sorts of other things," he said. "It's important for schools to help students think about the purpose behind the work they're doing to get to college."

Email: cbaker@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company