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Black Men's College Success Depends on Grit, Not Just Grades, Study Finds

Talent and strong high school achievement can propel young black men to college, but a new study finds their grit—the determination and ability to handle setbacks—is nearly as critical to their success at majority-white campuses.

In "What Role Does Grit Play in the Academic Success of Black Male Collegians at Predominantly White Institutions?" released this week in an online preview for the Journal of African American Studies, Ohio State University associate education professor Terrell L. Strayhorn found that grit was nearly as predictive as ACT scores to the college success of young black men who attend mostly white universities.

Strayhorn tracked 140 mostly first-generation college students at a large public university. He found that those who scored higher on an eight-item measure of grit earned higher course grades after taking into account prior achievement, age, transfer status and school engagement, among other factors.

"The environment at predominantly white institutions can be very different from the cultural backgrounds from which some black males come. So these students not only have to deal with the academic demands, but work around the social differences that are dramatically different from where they grew up," Strayhorn said in a statement on the findings. "The ability to persevere in the face of obstacles is a key to college success for black men. You can't change where a student grows up, or the quality of the high school he attended. But grit is something that can be taught and instilled in young men and it will have a real effect on their success."

The findings are the latest in an array of research exploring grit and what role it plays in success both in academics and life. Grit can still be a bit of a squishy concept—the latest term attempting to encompass a mix of resilience, perseverance, self-control, focus, and positive mindset—and there is a lot of debate right now over whether grit is a character trait, or a skill that can be taught.

Strayhorn is in the camp of considering it a skill, and he told me he envisions pre-semester "boot camps" to instill students with grit and other skills needed to succeed in college:

"What I envision entails actual learning activities and experiences that (a) nurture students' capacity to persevere despite setbacks or failure, (b) clarify their personal and professional goals, and (c) provide them strategies for overcoming obstacles to achieving such goals, to name a few," he said.

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