The chips are stacked against black males trying to make it through school and experts have pointed to everything from the Great Recession to the 1980s crack epidemic as the reason why. But a recent study by Terrell Strayhorn, associate professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University, says there may be another factor at play.
“For many black men, talent and high school success are not the only things they need to succeed when they attend a predominantly white university," Strayhorn says, pointing to a third factor -- grit.
According to psychologists, "grit" is defined as a dedication to pursuing and achieving a goal, whatever the obstacles and failures along the way. In his study of 140 black male, first-generation college students who were enrolled full time at a large, predominantly white public university, Strayhorn found that grit affected college grades for almost as much as high school GPA and ACT scores.
“Despite where they begin in terms of college readiness, black males who show more grit than their peers earn better grades in college," he concluded in this study, which appears online in the Journal of African American Studies. Even after taking into account factors that may affect grades, such as prior achievement, age, year in school, transfer status, how engaged they are in university activities and their degree aspirations, the grit-to-success correlation remained true.
In 2010, a 50-state report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education revealed that only 47 percent of black male students graduated high school, much less made it on to college, nationwide. Last year, the same organization released a report stating that while more than half of the young black men who graduated high school in 2010 earned their diploma in four years, it would still take nearly 50 years for black men to graduate at the same rate as their white male counterparts.
Strayhorn says that a closer look at the role grit plays in college degree attainment may be the key to turning the tide.
“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,” Strayhorn said in a release, suggesting that educators look to ways to integrate the model into academic boot camps that teach young people how to manage stress, balance demanding tasks over time and cope with academic failure.
“The ability to persevere in the face of obstacles is a key to college success for black men," Strayhorn said.
Fellow educators from across the country have been taking similar steps to help close the black-white achievement gap.
According to a report released last year called “Advancing to Completion: Increasing Degree Attainment by Improving Graduation Rates and Closing the Gaps for African-American Students,” universities across the country have managed to boost graduation rates without reducing black college enrollment.
How they did it, the report says: By implementing programs targeted specifically toward blacks.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, students follow a cohort curriculum in which the cohort take the same classes with the same professor, and get specialized support services. Special programs, such as mentoring programs for black students in science, technology, engineering and math are also offered.
The State University at Albany in New York holds regular meetings between academic and student-affairs staff to identity early those students at risk of dropping out.
Between 2004 and 2010, about half of the public and private schools named in the report either improved their graduation rates or closed the attainment gaps for black students by an average of 8 percentage points.