Girls move the position of their cap tassels to mark a successful graduation at Meridith College, May 15, 2007.
Grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them. —Robert Pondiscio

Colleges in the United States aren’t producing enough graduates to keep up with future job demands, so reversing low college completion rates is critical, says an October 2012 study by the National School Boards Association and Center for Public Education. The study found that the right kind of preparation in high school could make a big difference in keeping students on track for college completion.

There will be 47 million jobs created by new industries and retiring workers by 2018, and one-third of them will require at least a bachelor’s degree, the report said. Another 30 percent will require some post-secondary training. But, college graduation rates aren’t keeping up with the demand for educated workers.

The study sought to find ways for ensuring that students who enter college actually graduate — something that isn’t happening as much as it should. In 2009, only 58 percent of students at four-year institutions graduated within six years, and only 33 percent of students at two-year institutions graduated within three years.

Because dropping out is most likely in the first year of college, the study looked at traits of students who stayed in college for a second year, and found three commonalities:

Taking high-level math classes in high school (pre-calculus and calculus) improved the likelihood of staying in college by 10 to 20 percent.

Taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in high school improved college persistence rates — even when students failed the end-of-course tests. Just being in the classes made a difference. And, the more of these classes students took, the higher their college persistence rates.

Talking to a college academic advisor consistently improved students’ persistence rates by 53 percent.

The impact of the three strategies was magnified for students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Asa Spencer’s blog for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute noted that the NSBA study might have missed a key factor:

“Academic readiness and innate smarts are only two rungs on this ladder to college success. Students’ abilities to persevere through challenging circumstances are also necessary for them to persist in college, “ Spencer wrote, referring to Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character."

Another Fordham B. Institute blogger, Robert Pondiscio, reviewed Tough’s book, which has garnered significant attention in the education world. The premise of the book is that tenacity, curiosity and optimism matter more than cognitive ability where school success is concerned, he wrote.

“Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that, insofar as there is any formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and ‘grit,’” according to Pondiscio.

Tough and Pondiscio both say that family environments that develop character traits like determination and grit can make a huge difference for students. But, schools still must try to make up for what many students don’t get at home, Pondiscio wrote. That includes filling in knowledge gaps with rich content from the first day of kindergarten — especially for “school-dependent” learners (those whose home lives don’t foster success at school).

“Grit matters a lot,” he wrote, “but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.”

The new NSBA report on setting kids up for success in college prompted Oklahoma state school superintendent candidate Janet Barresi to give parents a pep talk:

“I encourage you to look through more of the information in the report to see how it might help you motivate and encourage your child to take on more academic challenges, especially in subjects that relate to science, technology, engineering and math,” Barresi wrote in her blog. “As parents and educators, let’s insist on excellence for our children and our future.”