In Need of Institutional Grit

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

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Last week I wrote about the issues of college admissions, selectivity, and grit. I can’t seem to read anything lately without hearing more about grit. As mentioned, grit is a term coined, to a degree, by Angela Duckworth in her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” The argument is that students with “grit” tend to succeed more than other students. However, the strength of the grit contention has been recently found to have limited inte’grit’y or empirical scrutiny. That is, it doesn’t hold up to the science. In the end, how does one measure grit as an issue that helps define the intellectual and social makeup of a person? Something that defines their resiliency and ability to start and finish? To put “all in?”


I don’t doubt that grit matters. It has for me and I’ve seen it as a major strength in others. When the chips are down, some of us have a unique ability to conjure up a special power that helps us persevere through challenging times or issues. Maybe all of us have this ability. But some people have more than others. We see it all the time around us and within us. Somehow, over a lifetime of creating the ethos of who we are, we develop a demeanor and efficacy about how we do things. Some people do more; others less. Some people work smarter; some less. In the end, we want people who are knowledgeable and have the ability to put their knowledge into action. We want gritty people, but not necessarily at the cost of losing the emotional intelligences that are the foundation of the soft skills so desired by employers, let alone friends and family.

Unfortunately, it seems the analytics of grit do not hold up well when measured against other admissions criteria, such as test scores and GPA. How we select students into selective colleges has long been an argument in the US and in selective institutions. The truth is simple: if I want to ensure my freshman class is going to graduate, I need to measure one thing: income. Sure, it sounds horrible, but income is the denominator for every variable calculation that we can bring to bear on this issue. What is the highest predictor of high school GPA? Income. What is the highest predictor of SAT score? Income. What is the highest predictor of quality of courses taken? Income.

This is all true. But it doesn’t seem fair, does it? And for this reason we look for alternative methods about how to decide on which students will populate our freshman classes. We want to level playing fields without being completely unfair against academically strong candidates: those who, for any other reason, would fill the limited spots without question.

So grit may matter, but I wish to turn this conversation around and talk about institutional grit rather than student grit.

If you talk to faculty members from time to time, there is a portion that believe that the success of students depends exclusively on the students themselves. If students simply did the work, they would complete and graduate. Of course, this resonates to many of us. Students must bring their knowledge to the forefront as well as their ability to grow and learn. Nonetheless, there is a major responsibility on behalf of the institution to ensure that students have the resources to succeed. In my Swail Geometric Framework for Student Retention, I posit that the success of any student requires the balance between the resources of that student in combination with those of the institution. Only when there is a balance—an equilibrium as I call it—does success occur. In golf we sometimes use the phrase ham and egg, which is a colloquialism that means when one partner plays poorly on a hole, the other plays well, providing a balance that can lead to overall success. In education, we can use the same analogy such that where the student has a weakness or need, the institution has the resources to help the student overcome this deficiency. These are the safety nets that institutions must provide to help students.

When I travel to institutions and talk with faculty, staff, and administrators, I often remind the group that upon accepting a student into their institution, they have, for all effective purposes, entered a moral and ethical agreement to do whatever the institution can to support the student to reach his or her educational goals. Sometimes I receive pushback from faculty members who says they can’t possibly work with students on an individual basis to ensure success, but I counter quickly: if we can figure ways to collect money from students and families on an individual basis, surely we can figure out how to provide individual, person-to-person support services as well. It is, ultimately, our primary responsibility.

Thus, institutions need to use their “grit” to ensure success for students. This type of grit comes in the form of invasive services, including advising and tutoring, to name only two. The institution must be particular astute in recognizing when students are teetering and in danger of dropping out, or, perhaps just as importantly, when they are staying in but earning poor grades or failing.

Grit, as stated, is something that is honed over time, just as humor and compassion are cultivated over a lifetime. Institutions need to cultivate their culture of support and caring over generations of faculty, staff, and students. But it has to start somewhere and with someone. We want institutions to have high expectations of their students and pull out all the stops to help along the way.

I often close my keynotes and workshops by saying that we cannot save all students from themselves. Some students just aren’t going to persist and graduate, no matter what we do. However, we can absolutely do more to help our students succeed with a reasonable expectation of effort from everyone who works with us. We all need a little grit.


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