Column: The problem with grit in higher education

Graduation cap with a diploma and roses behind it.
(Photo illustration by Diana Ramirez/De Los; photos by Dany Castrejon, Omar Lopez and Rihards Sergis.)

Periodically, the Latinx Files will feature a guest writer. This week, we’ve asked De Los contributing columnist Alex Zaragoza to fill in. If you have not subscribed to our weekly newsletter, you can do so here.

Throughout my entire public school education, I think I must’ve watched “Stand and Deliver” around 20 times. The second I saw a substitute standing awkwardly at the head of the class, or my teacher looking absolutely drained of all life force, I knew we were about to watch Edward James Olmos drop some integrals on Lou Diamond Phillips.

The 1988 drama is based on the true story of Jaime Escalante, the famed Garfield High math teacher who pushed his working class, under-resourced and mostly Latinx students into passing the AP calculus exam. The takeaway of the movie isn’t that you always carry the one (or whatever it is they do in calculus), but instead is meant to remind students, especially Latinx and Black students, that grit and gumption can help you overcome anything, even if you go to a school where pencils double as weapons during gang fights.


It’s a nice sentiment, but one that ignores the systemic obstacles that make up the second part of the equation. Students need more than ganas, and relying so much on this idea is toxic and detrimental to Latinx students who constantly get this individualistic message megaphoned into them.

That’s what 22 scholars and authors argue in “Debunking the Grit Narrative in Higher Education: Drawing on the Strengths of African American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Latinx, and Native American Students.” The book, released in November, is edited by Angela M. Locks, Deborah Faye Carter and Rocío Mendoza, educators and scholars in the field of postsecondary education.

It challenges the dominant narrative that students of color only need grit to thrive in college, an idea that puts the onus of success solely on them without much regard for larger institutional failures that affect their achievement. And pop culture depictions of grit certainly don’t help.

“Usually the narratives have a triumphant tone, and that there is a quick fix or a unique fix that will make everything better: the right teacher, the right concept, this new quick trick,” said Carter, an associate professor of higher education at Claremont Graduate University. “That’s also how I think we have conceptualized the adoption of grit. If kids just had grit that would fix everything. That assumption is faulty. There is no quick fix.”

Hollywood, it turns out, doesn’t mirror reality — sorry to Michelle Pfeiffer as an instructor teaching rap lyrics as poetry in “Dangerous Minds.”


According to Mendoza, who teaches at the University of Redlands, the concept of grit is one that’s “still feeding into the American Dream“ and promotes an unrealistic one-size-fits-all road map to achievement.

“I think the narrative that’s so much more deeply baked into this country is just you do right, you pull yourself up, and you’ll be successful,“ she said. “And that’s just not the reality for any of us.”

While ganas is an important attribute for students to possess, the book argues that educators and educational institutions need to seek an approach that focuses on creating environments that help support students rather than leaving them to fend for themselves.

Latinx students can certainly use the help. A 2022 study by the Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education found that Latinx college students struggled to stay enrolled more than any other ethnicity or race. Half of all respondents reported that it was “difficult” or “very difficult” to stay in their program, with more than half of students reporting that they’ve considered leaving school. Similarly, a 2023 report by nonprofit Excelencia in Education found that the education gap between Latinxs and their white counterparts had widened in the last four years.

Locks, who serves as executive director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Academic Affairs at Cal State Long Beach, said the book was intended to interrupt ”the very real harm” caused by perpetuating the grit narrative.

“We talk about how the problem with grit is white supremacy,” she said. “It’s an easy out for people in positions of power who are participating in white supremacy as educators, whether it’s conscious or not, and it lets them off the hook for the decisions they’re making that have a real impact on students of color.“


The topics discussed in the book couldn’t be timelier given the growing national backlash to programs and initiatives aimed at providing institutional support to students of color. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 81 bills attacking diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in colleges and universities have been introduced in 28 states and in Congress since 2023. Of these, eight have become law in places like Texas and Florida. It’s a dangerous trend that will only further marginalize students who can least afford it.

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Latinx Files
(Jackie Rivera / For The Times; Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times)

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