Drive to succeed not enough for poor students, studies find

Motivation, passion and perseverance are the key to success for postgraduate students, according to two South African education researchers. Dr Kelly Anne Young, a senior researcher at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and Professor Elizabeth Archer, the director of institutional research at the University of the Western Cape, examined psychometric properties among 837 postgraduate students enrolled at UNISA.

Their findings are reported in the article, “Validating the Grit-S scale among postgraduate students in a South African distance education institution”, that was published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Education.

The grit scale, which was developed in 2007 by Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the United States, is a psychological predictor tool that measures the extent to which people are able to persevere and maintain focus towards achieving long-term goals.

In this context, Young and Archer found that passion and perseverance, the key traits of the grit scale, were evident as predictors of academic success among distance education postgraduate students at UNISA. “It seems reasonable to conclude that the grit scale is a valid tool and can reliably measure passion and perseverance among postgraduate students at a South African distance education institution,” the authors state.

Grit not related to student retention

But, whereas passion and perseverance could be valid predictors for academic success among postgraduate students, the situation is quite different when it comes to the assessment of most of the other students at that university.

Young’s PhD research that investigated the role of grit as a predictor of academic success at UNISA found that many students had challenges that affected their academic appeal. Her thesis, ‘An exploration of psychological grit as a predictor of student retention in an Open Distance Learning (ODL) institution’ submitted at UNISA in 2019, disproved the predictive value of psychological grit in determining the retention of honours students at the institution.

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for grit as a novel predictor of academics, Young and Archer found that grit was not related to student retention, nor could it significantly predict academic retention in an open-distance learning environment. “Having grit alone does not appear to influence retention in an economic climate where tuition fees and the cost of participating in higher education continue to rise,” Young stated.

While it is vital to recognise the role passion and perseverance play in educational outcomes and success stories elsewhere, the financial and social hardships faced by many UNISA students do not make provision for the proverbial stance for the American dream.

In this regard, Young argued the post-apartheid government in South Africa has been unable to rectify most economic inequalities and inefficiencies in higher education. She noted that many students’ academic success is still threatened by their disadvantaged backgrounds.

Variety of complex factors hampers success

In her assessment, Young argues that many students at UNISA and other universities in South Africa suffer from severe academic under-preparedness due to a wide range of complex factors that include conceptual development, academic language proficiency, approach to learning, as well as subject knowledge.

Young argues that many university students in South Africa between the ages of 20 and 34 are first-generation students, a challenge that comes with the psychological pressures of being the first in the family to attend university. According to Young’s dissertation, 70% of students who withdraw from higher education in South Africa have no siblings with university experience and are academically less prepared.

In essence, the issues Young raised that affect retention or academic success in South Africa that are beyond passion and perseverance are corroborated by Dr Hanna Girma Wedajo, an Ethiopian diaspora scholar and senior research associate at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in the US.

Using the life history research method, Wedajo found that poor students in Ethiopia require more than just a clear vision of their future to pursue and realise their higher education aspirations.

In the study, ‘I Spend My Time in Class Thinking of What I Would Eat After School: Economically disadvantaged students’ capability to pursue aspirations in Ethiopia’, that was published in August 2023 in the Journal of African Education, Wedajo said there should be support that would eradicate economic barriers so that youth can pursue and attain their goals.

Financial security, harassment also identified

The study that is related to the research findings in her PhD dissertation argued that students who are economically more fortunate, might focus more in class compared to their poor counterparts. Her dissertation titled, ‘Imagining and Navigating the Future: Educational aspirations and agency of economically disadvantaged Ethiopian secondary school students’ was submitted to the University of Minnesota in 2022.

Wedajo’s conversations with some of the poor students in Ethiopia revealed that most of their aspirations, especially those related to academic success, are dimmed by financial issues in the home and a lack of higher education opportunities and academic mentorship. Wedajo also identified peer pressure to drop out from secondary or university, sexual harassment, and proficiency in English as barriers.

“What makes me frustrated when I think about my future is starvation, and throughout my school life, my main challenge has been thinking of what I would eat after school,” one informant said.

Informants also mentioned uncertainty in the higher education environment, such as the high tuition fees and ethnic tensions on some university campuses in Ethiopia as factors that impact on academic aspirations.

An informant told Wedajo that, although she wanted to become a psychologist, she decided to become a flight attendant instead. “Our universities are closed most of the time and students there are not sure when they will complete their studies and, because of poverty, I prefer to work rather than spend my time in this uncertainty of whether I am going to have a degree or not.”

First-year students unprepared

The issues that shatter aspirations emerging from Wedajo’s and Young’s studies are widespread in Africa’s higher education environment. These researchers highlighted how large numbers of students in Africa enter higher education unprepared in terms of proficiency in the languages of instruction, mathematical ability, and effective study skills – all factors necessary to succeed in higher education.

To optimise learning in the sector in most African countries, the researchers pointed out the need to improve the quality of secondary education, as well as consider the financial and social hardships faced by many undergraduate students.

But, as Young has pointed out, the financial cost of higher education in Africa excludes many poor, disadvantaged students. Inherent socio-economic inequalities that many African governments are yet to resolve are mainly to blame.