An Enrollment Experiment, Grounded in ‘Grit’

In the fast-changing realm of higher education, “grit” is becoming a red-hot word. Maybe you call it resilience, determination, or perseverance. Srikant Vasan defines it as “being able to get over obstacles as they appear in your path, to stand up when you’ve been punched down, to set a long-term vision and a goal for yourself, and be able to keep those in mind.”

How might colleges effectively measure—and promote—those kinds of noncognitive skills and habits among students? Mr. Vasan hopes to provide an answer. He is the founder and president of Portmont College, a new, low-cost associate-degree program created by Mount St. Mary’s College, in Los Angeles, and the MyCollege Foundation, which is financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The hybrid program, which will combine online and in-person components, was designed for students who have the potential to excel in college, but who lack other things—such as money, strong academic preparation, or a flexible schedule—that correlate with postsecondary success. Perhaps they’re first-generation students with so-so high-school grades, or working adults who are caring for elderly parents, or nonnative English speakers who struggled on the SAT.

“We all talk about the American dream, a fair shot for all,” says Mr. Vasan, who’s also president and chief executive of the MyCollege Foundation. “This is one way to bridge the achievement gap.”

Portmont, Mr. Vasan says, will work with secondary schools and community-based organizations to identify prospective students, who would need a high-school degree or GED, and at least a 10th-grade proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Applicants would then participate in a free online course called “Launch Pad.” Over a three-week period, students would be asked to complete a series of exercises designed to help Portmont officials evaluate their noncognitive skills and behaviors; predictive models would tell the college which students were likely to thrive. Those interactive exercises would also give students personalized feedback.

As described by Mr. Vasan, the program would weave together threads of various studies on noncognitive attributes. Although the details are still being finalized, and Mr. Vasan does not want to reveal the “secret sauce,” he cites a handful of researchers whose work would surely shape the program’s approach. Among them is Angela L. Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the “Grit Scale,” a 12-item questionnaire designed to measure what we might call stick-to-it-iveness.

“We think a similar model can be applied in the higher-ed sector,” Mr. Vasan says. “If we just went ahead and filtered the same way everybody else filters, then we’re not doing anything for access. Not everything can be measured on an SAT test. We’re going to take a different tack of finding those diamonds in the rough.”

In the second phase (called “Ignition”), admitted students would participate in an in-person experiential-learning program. They would meet with a success coach and the peers who would form their “support community.” Later, during their first two academic terms, students would take two for-credit courses meant to reinforce what they’ve learned and provide continuing support.

Those courses would emphasize “core capabilities” associated with success in the workplace, such as critical thinking, communications, problem solving, and teamwork. Along the way, Mr. Vasan says, Portmont will use academic and “behavioral” data to tailor student-specific interventions throughout each semester.

“There will be an opportunity for you to know that someone’s watching over you,” he says. “If you stumble, someone’s going to call you and say, What’s going on? You stumbled today.” Ultimately, students may choose to share measures of their core capabilities with prospective employers.

The Portmont College at St. Mary’s program, which is scheduled to start in Denver this December, will cost $5,240 per year. The program will offer associate degrees in business administration, computer science, liberal arts, and pre-health science. Read more here.

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