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Do college students need grit or do they already have it?

Updated on July 22, 2015

Grit is one of those educational words that surfaces, trends and becomes a frequent hash tag. Angela Lee Duckworth coined the term that has been used synonymously with determination, specifically academic determination. Some researchers and faculty members believe that today’s college students are lacking grit. It’s been hypothesized the lack of grit is what prevents students from persisting and achieving success. It’s been suggested that without grit students will not have the tenacity to press on against the challenges they will likely encounter in higher education.

Grit to endure the challenges

It might be argued, though, today’s students demonstrate exorbitant grit, especially underprepared, and marginalized students. In many cases they have endured multiple challenges some of which might include being first generation college students, living in low income or poverty situations and have moved routinely attending multiple k-12 systems in various districts. Others have been victims of abuse, racism or bullying. Yet these tenacious students still have the grit and determination to complete financial aid forms, register for courses, acquire the required class materials, locate transportation and attend classes.

Skepticism about the payoffs

What might be perceived as students' lack of grit might be less about perseverance and more about their skepticism about the payoff for the sacrifices they’ll have to make to achieve a college education. And, even if students believe the payoff is worth the sacrifices the reward often seems too far down the road to seem within reach.


Many students have the grit and determination they need to be successful but they have lived enough life to know they have to be selective about where they choose to invest their grit. Students might not be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve an education especially if those sacrifices include giving up friend or familial relationships. Many students have support systems that encourage their academic success and career goals. However, some students, especially first generation students, might be familiar with a cultural attitude that questions whether a newly educated member believes they are “better” than others in the family or neighborhood. The fear of being distanced from family and friends or being thought of as disloyal often puts students in a position to choose between their academic goals and relationships with loved ones.

Lack of skills

With upwards of seventy percent of community college students needing at least one remedial class in reading, writing or math many students quickly learn their academic skills are not at college level. Students might not be willing to invest their time and grit to take what’s perceived as an educational back step to learn what was missed in their k-12 experience. The necessary and required remedial classes only delay their educational dreams and add yet another barrier to what seems to be an out of reach goal.

Juggling responsibilities

Students might not see the long-term benefits of trying to juggle collegiate demands and life’s day-to-day complications. Once students fall behind and doubt they have a chance of catching up to pass their classes they might not see the value in continued attendance and begin weighing the stresses of juggling responsibilities both in and out of the classroom against the theoretical benefits of degree attainment.

Faculty interventions

Below are several ways faculty can help students see the payoffs of directing their grit and determination to post-secondary education:

  • Remind students throughout the semester of the various benefits of higher education including the ability to have more professional choices and opportunities, potential financial gains, better health and overall improved quality of life.
  • Help students reframe their perspective that educational success is not something that takes them away from their families and friends but promotes opportunities that allows them to take care of themselves and the people they love.
  • Assist students in developing college level reading, writing and math skills using the quickest and most effective approaches including, tutoring, blended classes, supplemental instruction, and other campus supports.
  • Approach students quickly and regularly if a problem is identified with students’ performance, attendance or participation.
  • Inquire about difficulties students might be enduring outside of class that might be interrupting their success such as providing or caring for dependents, challenging work schedules or other personal demands. Faculty can introduce students to campus resources including academic support centers, counseling services or child day care centers.
  • Provide words of encouragement at known pivotal exit points, that remind students of what has been accomplished, how much closer they are to achieving their goals and that it is worth their time and effort to persist. For example, an instructor could provide verbal prompts or display messages electronically like the ones below:

“Stay with me. We’re almost there. We are half way to the end of the term. In just three more semesters you will be graduating. Imagine yourself walking across the stage and receiving your diploma as your family and friends watch. See it, visualize it, and it make it happen.”

“Even if you aren’t passing, keep attending all your classes. If you have to re-take a class next semester, and you stay through this semester, it will be a review. However, if you quit, it will again be all new information and no easier to pass the second time than it was the first.”

“If you’re thinking about quitting; don’t. Talk to me first.”

“If you were running a race and you realized you weren’t going to come in first, would you just walk off the track and quit? Of, course not. When you see the finish line, you press harder, pick up speed and give it all you’ve got. The semester finish line is right in front of you. Press hard and finish strong. Don’t walk off the track.”

Student will demonstrate grit when they believe their time and effort are worth the payoff.


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