Research Shows Grit Plays Key Role in Black Males’ College Success

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by Marlon A. Walker

Terrell Strayhorn

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn says those who are grittier are “more likely to succeed.”

A new article is suggesting a student’s determination could be the key to helping shape their outcome in college.

Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn says it has long been known that a student’s grade point average and test scores from the SAT and ACT foreshadow the level of academic achievement in college. He sought to test what role a noncognitive trait — grit — plays in predicting successful outcomes, as well.

In the article, “What Role Does Grit Play in the Academic Success of Black Male Collegians at Predominantly White Institutions?” Strayhorn takes a look at a student’s social background, as well as his academic performance. In it, grit is defined as “the tendency to pursue long-term, challenging goals with perseverance and passion.”

“About 2009, people started saying there are certain groups that face challenges and barriers in college that require them to have other skills and abilities to succeed that have nothing to do with their grades or their confidence,” said Strayhorn, an associate professor of higher education in the School of Education Policy and Leadership within the College of Education and Human Ecology at the Ohio State University. “I think it’s pretty jarring that my hypothesis was correct. Even when you take Black men in college who have similar GPAs in high school and similar test scores, those who are grittier — who persevere despite setbacks and pursue their own goals despite barriers — are more likely to succeed.”

Data released in the U.S. Department of Education’s Condition of Education shows that 14 percent of the students in the 4,400 postsecondary schools across the country are Black. Of those, about one-third are males. And when they enroll, they are more likely to attend two-year institutions, enroll part time or earn low grades, putting them at risk for being kicked out.

A survey to students in the study of grit asked students about their lives, academic history and included the grit scale, which looks at things such as student self-efficacy, self-esteem, academic achievement and whether a subject feels like they have control over an outcome in his or her life. In reporting their grit level, students were asked to answer things such as: “I finish whatever I begin” and “I have overcome setbacks.”

In the article, Strayhorn says he found that grit, as well as background traits and academic factors explain nearly a quarter of the difference in grades received by Black male students in college. That’s a good thing, he said.

“You can teach people how to be gritty,” he said. “These are not fixed traits in individuals. You can nurture someone’s perseverance, giving way for workshops and programs … teaching students to hang in there, even when they face setbacks and failures.”

The study of grit is part of a larger study Strayhorn has undertaken on the experiences of Black male collegians in the United States. For this piece, he used a sample of 140 Black male students enrolled full time during the Spring 2008 semester at a large, predominantly White research university in the southern United States. The sample pool was derived in a way that it reflected the physical composition of the university’s Black male student population. The majority of the sample were first-time college students largely from urban areas, and with a third of the group enrolled in engineering, science, technology and math majors. About 86 percent also lived in dormitories.

The study found that grittier Black males had higher grades than the other Black males in the survey. The study also found that the grittier Black males had better grades and test scores in high school.

 

The grit study was broken out of the larger project because of its implications for educating Black males in the future, Strayhorn said. According to the article’s conclusion: “Armed with information from this study, college student educators can do more to meet the needs of Black male students and help them earn better grades in college.”

With its release this year, Strayhorn says he already has seen the impact of pointing out the usefulness of grit in determining a student’s successful outcome. At the Ohio State University, there is talk of including grit items in the assessments for incoming students.

“This could easily become a curriculum for a summer program … that not only helps [Black men] be successful at the task in front of them, but benefit them when they graduate,” he said. “It’s exciting to think about.”

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