It Will Take More Than Just Academic Preparedness

When I first started working at the Gates Foundation five years ago, we had a definition of college readiness that included:

  • Academic preparation
  • Academic tenacity
  • College knowledge

We knew then, and Paul Tough continues to remind us in his article “Who Gets to Graduate” that getting and staying in college takes more than just academic performance. When we first looked at some investments in this area we talked to Carol Dweck of Stanford University, Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), and other experts who have done ground-breaking research on this topic. The Raikes Foundation is now taking on some of this work through its Social Emotional Learning investments.

We coined “academic tenacity” at the Gates Foundation, but the work goes by many other names in the field from “grit” to “perseverance.”  Tough’s piece focuses on efforts at UT to help low-income students overcome doubts about their abilities to be successful in college by providing them a range of  “student success programs.” These include small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring, caring advisers and community-building opportunities. Led by David Laude, the university’s senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management, the programs are based on the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, which Laude created when he was a chemistry professor there. The interventions are also informed by Yeager’s research, which showed that communicating messages to students that they belong in college, and that their brain grows and makes new connections by working on challenging problems, can help them overcome negative perceptions about themselves.


It’s refreshing to see UT taking on this problem and trying to scale it across the university. Even though my portfolio has shifted and I no longer hold the “academic tenacity” investments, I’m keeping a close eye on this one. Simple solutions that travel well, like the ones at UT, have an ability to make a dramatic shift in how we prepare students for college and help larger numbers of students graduate.