Can We Judge Colleges by Their Success at Encouraging Grit?

One of my former students recently filled me with hope for the next generation. Clifton Jett Jr. is the director and writer of a play that he was about to bring to the stage, “Black Tar Boulevard,” when the pandemic hit. Although many productions have shut down, Clifton decided instead to pivot and turn the play into an independent film. He says, “We have worked too hard and waited too long to just throw it all away.” He and his team are moving ahead, in a safe and responsible manner.

Where does this drive come from? Author Angela Duckworth calls it grit: “the power of passion and perseverance.” But grit doesn’t just bubble up. We need to find ways to spot it and encourage it.

I’ve seen this in Clifton’s life. As he tells it, he “fell into the categories of being Black, gay and having a learning disability. I now live life understanding that having a disability is what affects me the most with academics, but that does not mean that I am incapable of succeeding. With that knowledge, I knew that going to college was just right for me.”

Dr. Ronald S. RochonDr. Ronald S. Rochon

I see parts of Clifton’s story in my own life. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and went to Tuskegee University in Alabama. Early on, I received important guidance: Succeeding in college was non-negotiable.

Now, as president of the University of Southern Indiana (USI), I’m even more committed to creating and backing systems that encourage students to discover their inner drive.

One way we do that on our campus is through TRIO Student Support Services, which Clifton participated in during his time at USI. Student Support Services fosters an environment that advocates, serves and mentors first-generation, low-income and disabled participants.

The goal of our student-centered program is to prepare and empower our participants through identified student learning and development objectives to be self-aware and globally responsible.

Since 2009, the program has had a major impact on over 1,000 students. At the end of the 2019–2020 academic year, the program saw a student retention rate of 88%, the six-year graduation rate at 58% and 97% of students in good academic standing.

These are the kinds of statistics that are most important for assessing the value of the education we provide. The annual college rankings, including the most-watched one from U.S. News, often overlook or give short shrift to these types of outcomes; 20% of the publication’s ranking of our university is based on “expert opinion” from external audiences and 5% is based on alumni giving.

There are some glimmers of hope in external rankings, however. Washington Monthly highlights how over one-third of our students are the first in their family to go to college, as well as other measures that are realistic stand-ins for grit.

We’re all going to need more tenacity in the coming months and years. USI is looking to expand its nursing program in order to help the state deal with health disparities, especially in Indianapolis and Gary. Some of the people we hope to educate will arrive with their grit card in hand; others will need to earn it.

I’m confident we can help them. Just ask Clifton. When he can take a break from the movie set.

Dr. Ronald S. Rochon is president of the University of Southern Indiana.