Toughing it Out

Toughing it Out

Education journalist Paul Tough strikes again. Author of the much-talked about book, How Children Succeed, Tough has returned with an important feature in the recent New York Times magazine, entitled “Who Gets to Graduate?”

As Tough reports, college graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students are devastatingly disappointing. Statistics show that bottom quartile family income students with SAT scores between 1200-1600 (out of 1600) are less likely to graduate college by age 24 (44%) than top quartile family income students with SAT scores between 800 and 999 (54%).

In the piece, Tough highlights the University of Texas at Austin’s efforts – overseen by Psychology Professor David Yeager – to improve the retention and graduation rates of disadvantaged students. Yeager, a proponent of Carol Dweck, is a researcher on the rise. His work, situated in the field that is becoming known as “academic mindsets,” is also being advanced at the K-12 level. (Those programs, by University of Chicago and Stanford, will be featured in the forthcoming second Think Tank Special Report).

Who Gets To Graduate Cover

In Texas, the focus is on the mindsets of belonging and growth (rather than fixed), for which short, less than an hour, interventions have been designed and implemented – and have been shown to have an astoundingly positive impact. By arming college students before they are challenged by the beliefs that they “don’t belong here,” or “they’re just not smart enough to succeed,” Yeager and team are helping these students know how to bat back, knock down, and overcome these doubts when they inevitably arise.

As Tough writes, “the disadvantaged students who had experienced the belonging and mind-set messages did significantly better: 86 percent of them had completed 12 credits or more by Christmas. They had cut the gap between themselves and the advantaged students in half … If the effect of the intervention persists over the next three years (as it did in [another] study), it could mean hundreds of first-generation students graduating from U.T. in 2016 who otherwise wouldn’t have graduated on time, if ever.”

In conversations among SSATB Think Tank members about this same topic, we came to recognize that the value of academic mindsets, and assessing our incoming students for them, is not so much in improving our process of admissions selection as it is in providing an opportunity for better orienting students. If we can determine whether and which students have poor “academic mindsets,” we can better design orientation programs to support their successful integration into our school. Paul Tough’s excellent piece shows us one way to do so.