The wake-up call for Dell Scholar Amy Carabes Esquivel came when she failed her first psychology test as a junior at the University of Houston. The youngest of three and the first in her family to graduate high school, Amy worked with her professor to hone her study skills, learning to make flash cards and better schedule her studying to avoid last-minute cramming and combat test anxiety.
But it wasn’t just a matter of study skills. Amy was juggling a 30-hour-a-week job at a call center to help pay her bills so that she wasn’t a financial burden on her family. In the meantime, she saw friends pulling in full-time paychecks and wondered if she should do the same. She had always been a huge support to her family, and she felt a sense of guilt focusing on herself and her studies.
Clearing academic and financial hurdles isn’t enough
Despite those obstacles, Amy successfully earned her psychology degree in 2014. However she is the exception, as only 16 percent of low-income students nationally who enroll in college receive a bachelor’s degree within six years. While improving low-income students’ access to college is crucial, even more important is getting them through college with a diploma in hand. Clearly, that 16 percent figure tells us we have much work ahead.
As Amy’s experience shows, many factors can threaten a student’s chance of securing a degree. College-readiness efforts often focus on boosting students’ academic skills, via a rigorous high school curriculum, and addressing college affordability hurdles. But to make students truly college ready we also need to pay more attention to developing non-cognitive skills—such as resilience or self-regulation—to help them complete tough college coursework and handle the myriad of life challenges that surface over a college career.
These skills are especially critical for low-income students, who, like Amy, often have to juggle substantial competing demands outside school for their time, energy and focus.
Those pressures can have real consequences. Up to 75 percent of all college drop-out decisions among historically underrepresented students are non-academic in nature, according to a 2012 report by the National College Access Network and Institute for Higher Education Policy.
Research by Angela Duckworth, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that when it comes to high achievement, “grit” may be as essential as intelligence. (Duckworth has defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”) Duckworth and other researchers are studying the role grit and other factors play in college completion among low-income students, and she even believes that grit can be learned.
But to make students truly college ready we also need to pay more attention to developing non-cognitive skills—such as resilience or self-regulation—to help them complete tough college coursework and handle the myriad of life challenges that surface over a college career.
Character counts: More skill-building needed
These vital non-cognitive or “soft” skills break down into two basic categories: How to be a more effective student and how to better handle problems as they arise. Some of the foundation’s partners are already doing this work to help students fully prepare for college. Programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)are teaching tens of thousands of students across the country effective note-taking, time-management and study skills, helping students develop critical thinking skills and teaching them to ask probing questions. High-performing KIPP charter schools include a curriculum to develop seven character strengths that are highly correlated to success (such as zest, grit, optimism, self-control and curiosity) and track students’ progress in mastering character competency.
But we need more such efforts to broadly foster students’ skills in these key areas. And we need to ensure that character education becomes just as integral to preparing students like Amy for college as academic training and financial aid. Every link in the chain, from high schools and colleges to nonprofits concerned about college readiness and completion, needs to address the non-cognitive side of the equation. We owe it to low-income students to not just open the door to college, but to make sure they walk out that door like Amy did, with a diploma in hand.
 The Pell Institute, 2011
 Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Personality processes and individual differences. Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101