College readiness requires tenacity

College Readiness requires more than academic knowledge and skills, concludes a report by the Annenberg Institute. “College knowledge” — knowing how to apply, get financial aid and navigate a college campus — isn’t enough. Successful students need “academic tenacity,” the “underlying beliefs, attitudes, values . . . and accompanying behaviors that drive students to embrace and engage with challenging work, and to pursue academic achievement.” And not to quit when the going gets tough.

Programs to help disadvantaged students get to college tend to focus on academic preparation and “college knowledge.” But only a few focus on building students’ tenacity.

In Our School, I write about Downtown College Prep‘s drive to instill ganas, which can be translated as true grit, in their underachieving students. When the first class went off to college, many struggled academically. But they told the college counselor not to worry. They’d done it before. “They know what it’s like to start a new school and get hammered,” Vicky Evans told me. “They can handle failure. They’ve done it, and survived.”

I had to fight the editor to keep “failure” in the book. She saw failure as weakness, the end of the road, not the first step. It’s inflated, unearned, phony success — everybody gets an A! — that weakens young people and sets them up for permanent failure.

The Education Writers Association analyzes the research on college readiness in a new policy brief.

About Joanne


  1. I was once eliminated from consideration for a job, because, in the online screening, I answered the question, “Can failure ever be a good thing for a student?”

    My answer was YES! Failure teaches us many things – that the methods we are using aren’t working, that we need to modify something about our approach to improve our chances of success, that we can survive a negative situation without giving up. In life, many people will doggedly pursue the same pathways, until they get a figurative slap in the face – which is what failure is. Failure can be an amazing wake-up call – just ask the AA people – until the drunk hits bottom, he won’t change.

    They disagreed.

    I still think that they were wrong.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      LindaF…great comment. I never will forget asking my son’s chemistry teacher how he was doing. He said not well. He had given his kids a test and they did not do well. He was trying to figure out what happened and what he needed to change in his teaching to help them “get it”.

      Failure is only failure if you quit…

    • If they were asking you about failure of a class and you answered yes, I can see why you weren’t hired, and agree.

      • Mike43 says:

        Read the comment: failure of a student.

        • I did. If she’s talking about the student failing a class, then answering “yes” is a bad plan.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        If failure of a class can never be a good thing, then why not just formally eliminate failing grades?

        Everyone passes. Plain and simple.

        If Cal’s right, there’s no reason to have failing grades, because they never work any good whatsoever. Full stop.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          An F might be the ‘least bad’ thing while still not being a good thing. No?

  2. All the point what you had mentioned about the college students I totally agreed with them. Really apart from Academic Knowledge the College Readiness is definitely required for the students.

  3. Supersub says:

    I wouldn’t even say tenacity, but desire. Plain and simple, some adults are just tired of jumping through the hoops for 13 years, especially those who check out in the later years because the material is too easy or too hard.
    I know of a couple 90+ average HS graduates with 1100+ SATs who chose not to go to a 4 year school and instead went into programs designed for quick entry into the workplace.

  4. “tenacity is important to college success”

    That’s something I’ve been telling students for fifteen years.

    If you lack tenacity – if you are prone to give up at the first hint of failure – you’ll never do anything worthwhile. I think this is a no-brainer – that tenacity is important – but I guess not enough people know that.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Among other things, tenacity will give you pretty clear evidence of what directions are not your strong suit.
    My kids’ experience with HS extracurriculars leads me to think that those are areas in which failure can be serious–in context–without jeopardizing your future, mostly.

    The kids put pretty serious pressure on each other to take care of their end of whatever business it is.

    There was, probably still is, a nerd group at the HS who are referred to as “techies”. I talked to a new drama teacher who had produced a play and I asked him how he liked the situation. Great, he said. Even the techies show up like this little army. They’re ready to go and they know how to handle the lights and sound and curtains and whatever else we have.

    Some people disparage extra curriculars, focusing on the ostensible subject. I disagree, thinking it’s the process and the habits formed and the learning. I mean, it may be the stamp collecting club, but somebody has to be treasurer. It’s the latter that’s important.

  6. Right. The pressure to not flunk kids in their academic courses leaves the extracurriculars as the default place where slacking off extracts a price. Shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

    Even the kids who keep their noses to the grindstone in English or Algebra don’t really learn tenacity because the standards are low and there’s no credible risk of less than a B for them.