Strengthening ‘Grit’: One Key to Helping Low-Income, First-Generation Students Succeed

October 3, 2013

What’s the role of ‘grit’ in helping first-generation students from low-income families succeed in college? More importantly, how can we identify students with grit and give them the runway they need to bring that strength to the fore in a new environment?

The latter is question we grapple with daily. We think about it when we review applications to our Dell Young Leaders program in South Africa and Dell Scholars Program in the US. Our goal with these programs isn’t simply to identify the very most academically gifted students and provide them with money to help them defray costs. It’s to identify and support the students with the highest all-around potential to succeed all the way through to graduation–and that means looking at and making predictions based on indicators far broader than a standard report card.

Angela Duckworth, non-cognitive skills and college success

That’s why Angela Lee Duckworth’s work is so fascinating to us. A research psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Duckworth just won a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. a “genius grant.”) Her recent research focuses in part into how grit and self-control affect college persistence–exactly our sweet spot. How does Duckworth define the terms?

  • Grit is “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.”
  • Self control is the ability to “delay gratification” and “resist ‘in the moment temptations’”

Dr. Duckworth’s belief is that the two traits, which she and others in the field classify as non-cognitive skills, are far more predictive of college success than academic excellence. She calls on those of us working to drive up college completion rates among underprivileged students to:

  1. Solidify common definitions around the non-cognitive skills
  2. [Identify] validated assessment tools that broadly capture non-cognitive ability versus discreet skills or traits
  3. [Identify] proven and scalable interventions

(Review a deck articulating these goals and explaining Dr. Duckworth’s research.)

The takeaway

We echo these calls to action. We’d also add a fourth:

  1.  Put technology to work to help identify and intervene with enrolled students who are struggling before they fall off track.

Duckworth is sensitive to the fact that grit in one environment may not immediately translate into another. It’s our belief that by stepping in to help students find the resources they need before the wheels have come off and they have to drop out, we can better ensure they learn to apply their non-cognitive strengths in this new environment. Harnessing technology to help us assess student needs enables a small team of scholar support staff to maintain high engagement with some 1500 students at 450 institutions. To date, we’ve seen good results.

Among Dell Scholars, we have a six-year, 91 percent retention rate. Compare that to an 11 percent retention rate among the same socioeconomic cohort nationwide[i], and we believe we’re on track to identifying at least part of the puzzle around scalable interventions.

We congratulate Dr. Duckworth on her MacArthur grant, and look forward to seeing how she puts her own grit to work in using it.

Read an American Radioworks piece on Angela Lee Dukworth and her research into college persistence and grit especially as it relates to first-generation students.

This blog was originally published by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and is reprinted here with permission.

The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation ( is dedicated to improving the lives of children living in urban poverty around the world. With offices in Austin, TX and New Delhi, India, and Cape Town, South Africa, the Dell family foundation funds programs that foster high-quality public education and childhood health, and improve the economic stability of families living in poverty. The foundation also provides scholarship to high-potential students from low-income families through its Dell Scholars Program.

This blog is part of the joint Demos and SparkAction project, First to Finish College.