It’s Time for a Real Definition of Student Success

I work for a 16,000-member association that, like many other higher education organizations, has a goal of helping all students succeed. In fact, I think the words “student success”, particularly for undergraduate students, may finally be popular enough to surpass “big data”, which are two words that I think have permeated nearly every institution over the past several years.

While I remain passionate about any work that helps students thrive, the growing attention to the words “student success” has led me to question its real definition. Because I am naturally data-oriented in my thinking, I have also wondered how we can truly know we are reaching the goal of student success. I have seen and engaged in many approaches, mostly related to measuring things. Collecting, analyzing, and reporting data for evaluative purposes is certainly a needed response. However, I think we have to do more.

If we are going to prepare students to be as knowledgeable, adaptable, resourceful, and self-aware as they will need to be in the years ahead, we have to modify our definition of student success.

For example, we often measure student outcomes such as retention, persistence, and graduation, with the hope that positive numbers for such metrics would help us prove that students were successful. But, it is possible that students could have graduated from our institutions without having a very successful college experience. For example, a 2017 report from Gallup indicates that 51% of Americans would change at least one of their education decisions if they could do college over again.

We also measure students’ learning by administering assessments of their knowledge, skills, and abilities, with the goal of providing evidence that they are academically ready for meaningful careers. But, there is a chance that these students will enter a workforce filled with new market needs and job opportunities that do not match the formal preparation we provided.

I raise these points to prompt us to reframe our discussions of student success. At a minimum, we need students to come to college, stay enrolled, and graduate. But, a successful journey to those milestones can be described in much more detail. A thorough and meaningful college education can offer students one of the most dynamic, life-changing experiences that they will ever have.

Postsecondary education is a highly-valuable opportunity and if we frame it with that level of aspiration, I believe a credential can accurately represent a student’s successful completion of the experience. College can be a multi-faceted learning laboratory filled with social, financial, academic, and well-being resources that are unlike any other place one can go. In a best-case scenario, college students can learn how to effectively balance multiple aspects of their identity simultaneously with the support of professionally-trained faculty, administrators, and staff. We are close to a good depiction of a meaningful learning journey, but I think we have more work to do.

Considering that today’s students face new life and societal challenges that could span both their college and post-college years, we need an expanded definition of success. I think we would serve students better by adopting the following four outcomes, the combination of which addresses what they will need now and in their post-college years:

  1. A successful student knows when and how to adapt to or attempt to change their environment.
  2. A successful student understands their own needs and the needs of others and knows how to balance competing individual and community priorities.
  3. A successful student knows how to manage resources, both those for which they are individually responsible and those they share responsibility for with others.
  4. A successful student realizes their unique contributions to the world and is prepared to leverage their abilities to improve the conditions around them.

These outcomes add complexity to how we describe student success. But, if we only define student success in the context of completion metrics, we risk adopting a shortsighted view of a valuable college experience. Postsecondary education is an avenue for students to become more engaged citizens, contributors to the public good, and advocates for themselves and others. If we can prepare students to adopt those roles and earn a credential, they will experience the kinds of success, during and after college, that they deserve.

By reframing success to deliberately include these outcomes, higher education professionals can set the expectation of both short- and long-term learning capacities, and we can raise the value proposition of a college experience. If today’s students invest in an education from flexible and responsive institutions, graduate with a credential and the ability to do these four things, and meet their learning objectives, college will have been well worth their time and money.

Amelia Parnell is vice president for research and policy at NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.