Social capital and ‘grit’ help poor students to succeed

Schools have a crucial role to play in facilitating networks that enable the acquisition of social capital. In poor communities, such networks need to be “consciously created and fostered” if first-generation, low-income students are to access and succeed in higher education, says leading education expert Professor William Tierney of the University of Southern California.

“I ask how do first-generation, low-income students find their purpose to succeed as university students? My answer lies at the intersection of ‘grit’ and social capital,” said Tierney in a keynote address to the 9th Annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference held in Durban last week and hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

‘Grit’ has been identified as an individual characteristic that is predictive of success, and is characterised by “perseverance for long-term goals in the face of set-backs”. ‘Social capital’ is described as a framework that enables or disables individuals and groups.

Tierney is an expert on the administration and governance of higher education, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, author of more than 200 articles and 12 books, and editor of 43 books.

“Rather than an individual approach that suggests an individual needs to improve his or herself by way of ‘grit’, and if an individual does not, then tough luck, the framework I’m suggesting argues that individuals have the potential to exist in networks that enable the acquisition of social capital,” he said.

“In poor communities those networks need to be consciously created and fostered. How do we move forward with that?” Tierney asked. “Social organisations such as schools have a crucial role to play in the facilitation of networks.

“Rather than the model being ‘Yes I can’, it really needs to be ‘Yes we can’.”

Some history

Tierney outlined his theoretical position. “All my work can be as theoretical as can be. But if I do not improve the lives of African American and Latino students in California and the nation, then what good is my work?”

So for the past 15 or so years he has worked hands-on with students, counsellors and teachers in high schools in poor communities, figuring out how to improve students’ access to and success in higher education.

Education has been seen as a key vehicle out of poverty, Tierney pointed out. “A truism has been that the wealthier a country is, the better developed the educational system.”

A century ago, the purpose of tertiary education began to shift, largely in Europe and North America. “In particular, post-secondary education developed a dual purpose. It was not simply to better the mind; it was also to develop a job.

“Michael Gibbons noted that gone is the high mindedness of a Von Humboldt or a Newman, with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. In its place is an economic assumption that a well-educated citizenry benefits not only the individual but also the state.

“In the United States, that has guided us in the last century, for better or worse. That what we need are skills and you learn skills in a university. My assumption is that you can’t divorce skills from what I think of as citizenship skills, and that we need to put these two together.”

The question of access

During the last generation, Tierney said, there had come an acceptance that a high school education is no longer sufficient for a society aspiring for high wage jobs.

Higher education graduates earn more than people with only a school qualification, and also have a lower unemployment rate – and the need for a better-educated workforce will grow. To provide opportunities for low-income individuals, more people need to participate in higher education.

In California, estimates are that by 2019, over 350,000 additional individuals will be interested in enrolling as undergraduates in a public post-secondary institution. California would have some 2.75 million students.

While not everybody needed to obtain a four-year degree, said Tierney, the estimate for California was that it would need 61% of high school graduates to get some form of post-secondary education. “In California the assumption is that we need about a million more people than we currently have planned participating in higher education by 2025.”

With the need for a better-educated workforce, and the expected retirement of well-educated workers, California “will have 3.3 million jobs requiring a post-secondary credential. But we are only going to have 2.2 million workers. The implications are significant, with a lack of skilled workers undermining the state’s economic competitiveness.”

First generation students make up an increasing share of students in higher education and they graduate at a much lower rate than do students with university-educated parents, said Tierney.

“In the United States it is a very simple prediction. If my son or daughter goes to university they are more likely to graduate simply because their parents have a university degree.”

Public and private, ‘grit’ and networks

It had been suggested that globalisation is the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life. “A central derivative of globalisation has been rethinking what we mean by a public good,” Tierney said.

The school and university had been public institutions supported by the taxpayer, based on the assumption that both the individual and society benefitted from a better-educated citizenry. Globalisation had speeded up a shift from education as a public obligation to a private need. “Rather than assume that education benefits everyone, we assume that it only benefits you.”

This, Tierney continued, was where the idea of grit came in.

“Student achievement depends upon the individual. That’s why assessment has become so darn important.” Competition is good and dramatic reforms are needed.

“Society is merely the field where action happens and schools are simply parochial locales in that field. Fiscal support, the existence of teacher unions, a concern for democratic pedagogy and alike, take a back seat.”

Although hard work and determination were not new concepts in education, “the construct called grit was situated in the psychology literature in 2007 and is currently in vogue”, said Tierney. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, of the University of Pennsylvania, is the doyen of ‘grit’.

Tierney describes ‘grit’ as having three inter-related components: passion and interest, preference for long-term goals, and the ability to overcome setbacks.

One theory is that ‘grit’ is predictive of success. But while having ‘grit’ may be helpful to poor students, it is unlikely to be sufficient for college success. And while ‘grit’ might work on an individual level, it cannot be assumed that is the way things work on a systemic level.

“If we’re going to disrupt narratives, what are we going to do in low-income schools where there is not a very high university going rate, to change things?”


Tierney also described what he called ‘responsibilisation’, which framed a radically different version of the public good. ‘Responsibilisation’ assigned the burden of managing risks in society to the autonomous individual rather than the state.

“The idea of ‘responsibilisation’ has led to an emphasis on student self-discipline, determination and grit.

“If we assume that the grit skill is a function of consistency of interest and perseverance of effort, then it begs the question, who is responsible for these two goals? Is a student always to blame for not continually exerting effort despite teachers’ instructions to do so?

“Although issues of race, class and gender are not often examined extensively in the literature of ‘grit’ in psychology, considering grit from a socio-cultural perspective is useful, especially in educational contexts.”

Others in psychology have argued for mutual obligation, “where individual actors need to determine their future rather than remain passive. I cannot create change for you, but I can help in my classrooms to create the conditions for change".

“That puts a very different spin on who is responsible for what’s happening,” said Tierney.

While in the US the conservative rhetoric still highlighted that learning was mediated by numerous constituencies – teachers, parents and the church – “the governmentality literature, and with it idea of ‘responsibilisation’, atomises identity".

‘Responsibilisation’ requires people to be accountable for managing their own risk in society, Tierney explained. The picture is of winners and losers. “The state has moved from a focus on the welfare of all citizenry to a consumerist model where one’s success gets determined in a singular fashion.”

The state’s responsibility is not to educate, but to assess. When things go wrong, responsibility lies not with the state but with the individual.

The assumption that if students work hard they will succeed is based on the assumption that there is a level playing field, said Tierney. “Those of us who work in the sorts of schools that I work in, find that a tall order to digest.”

French philosopher Michel Foucault predicted the pervasive force of governmentality and his contemporary Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural and social capital showed that those who are marginalised are kept at the margins by the invisible force of capital.

“What they could not have predicted is how the individual had become atomised in the 21st century. The state regulates not by force, regulation or policies. Instead, globalisation has enabled the market to reign supreme.” ‘High stakes testing’ in America, said Tierney, was one outcome in education: “Again, some win, some lose.”

Social capital

Tierney prefers the construct of social capital, which he described as a framework that enables or disables individuals and groups.

“Just as economic capital allows an individual entry into certain arenas, and human capital pertains to skills an individual has as pertains to employment, social capital facilitates movement.”

In the schools Tierney works with, “I can facilitate social capital networks for my students so that they get into university, but then the capital they had has been spent. What are we in universities doing to generate additional capital, so that students have networks that facilitate learning in university?”

Examples of social capital are resources developed within networks of relationships of mutual acquaintances. An elite private high school offers multiple opportunities for a pupil to acquire social capital, say through visits to museums and an array of university preparation activities.

“Many students that I work with in inner city Los Angeles, at the age of 18, when they are about to apply for university, have never stepped on a campus. Think about that – in Los Angeles a university is only two, four kilometres from where they live and study.”

Networks matter, said Tierney, and social and economic capital are interrelated. Having one is likely to help acquire the other. Networks are also frequently multiple and overlapping.

“Pierre Bourdieu looked at such network development and concluded that social capital is a primary explanation of how inequality flourishes. Memberships, argued Bourdieu, are exclusionary and provide not only avenues for wealth creation but barriers to equality.”

People who are poor have many networks in their lives – families, social and fraternal organisations, churches and so on. Types of networks provide different sources of support.

“The challenge is to enable those who are poor to have access to network development that facilitates a path out of poverty,” said Tierney.

“The framework I’m suggesting argues that individuals have the potential to exist in networks that enable the acquisition of social capital. In poor communities those networks need to be consciously created and fostered. The point is not to deny individual responsibility but to problematise the actions of individuals, schools and the state.”

Role of the academic

What might an engaged intellectual do? Tierney wondered.

“Rather than assume that the nature of social relations is preordained, such that assessment or ‘grit’ are givens – that’s the way the world works – I suggest that transformation is possible.”

The role of the academic is to be a transmitter of knowledge, but also to figure out how to create change. “The thought of an academic in an ivory tower or removed from society is no longer sufficient. We must develop ways to enable those who are on the margins to forge strategies to gain control over their lives,” said Tierney.

‘Responsibilisation’ strategies work for some, but do not enable systemic reform.

The responsibility of the academic, he argued, is to focus on creating a more just society. Creating conditions for a better world may sound utopian, but as Henry Giroux argued, human beings not only make history but also make the constraints, and humans can also unmake them.

A multiplication of democratic practices is needed that enable diverse social relations, said Tierney. “The challenge is not simply to provide skills for those who are powerless in a zero sum game so that the structural relations of power remain the same.

“Our collective responsibility to one another, and especially to our students, is to create the conditions required for a reconfigured democratic public sphere, and this sphere enables voice and a diversity of public stances formed by a renewed sense of obligation to one another.”