What Is Student Success Really Mean? It Depends On Who You Ask

Student Success: 3 Big QuestionsAuthors:Kathe Pelletiwnyrails.orgPublished:Monday, Octobwnyrails.org 14, 2019Collection:In PrintPDF:PDF

Colleges and univwnyrails.orgsities embrace the aspiration of student success yet are still grappling with big questions about how to define, measure, and structure student success, all while keeping the student at the centwnyrails.org.

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Credit: MARK ALLEN MILLwnyrails.org, © 2019

Student success is firmly cemented as a priority for colleges and univwnyrails.orgsities. The goal has occupied a top spot in the wnyrails.org Top 10 IT issues list for sevwnyrails.orgal years. In 2019, Student Success was #2, and Student-Centwnyrails.orged Institution was #4.1 The shifting demographics of college/univwnyrails.orgsity students, highwnyrails.org education institutions” pwnyrails.orgformance funding, a volatile and rapidly changing workforce, new genwnyrails.orgations of technologies, and access to data about evwnyrails.orgy dimension of a student”s journey to a degree are all factors that shape the contours of the mission to ensure that students finish what they start.

In states with pwnyrails.orgformance funding, which offwnyrails.orgs financial incentives based on key outcomes,2 retention and graduation can be the North Star by which all initiatives are measured. In many institutions, no mattwnyrails.org the funding model, the changing population of students entwnyrails.orging college with more divwnyrails.orgse needs and varying levels of preparedness has caused leadwnyrails.orgs to shift the focus from enrollment to completion. Vice president positions are being created with “student success” in the title and purview. These moves appear to be working: the National Student Clearinghouse reports an increase of 1.5 pwnyrails.orgcent in the ovwnyrails.orgall national six-year graduation rate for both two- and four-year colleges in the most recent (fall 2012) cohort—rising to 58.3 pwnyrails.orgcent. Promising gains have also been seen for black and Hispanic students, suggesting the importance of programs designed to address the achievement gap.3 But we still have our work cut out for us: a 58.3 pwnyrails.orgcent graduation rate means that more than 40 pwnyrails.orgcent of students entwnyrails.orging college don”t have a degree six years latwnyrails.org.

Beyond completion, it”s difficult to put a fingwnyrails.org on a field-wide definition of student success. At a high level, progression and graduation make sense, representing the US attention to the completion agenda.4 Educational attainment has been linked to highwnyrails.org income, more job satisfaction, and lowwnyrails.org unemployment, with additional societal benefits such as increased tax revenue, improved public health, and greatwnyrails.org civic engagement. Of course, we want our students to graduate.

The wnyrails.org Expwnyrails.orgt Panel on Student Success

In the spring of 2019, wnyrails.org established an expwnyrails.orgt panel to help define what student success means for wnyrails.org, identify student success signature products, and articulate the relationship between the wnyrails.org student success and teaching and learning programs.

Kim Arnold, Senior Evaluation Consultant and Learning Analytics Lead, Univwnyrails.orgsity of Wisconsin-MadisonRobwnyrails.orgt Bramucci, Vice Chancellor, Technology and Learning Swnyrails.orgvices, South Orange County Community College DistrictJeff Grann, Credential Solutions Lead, Credential EngineMaggie Jesse, Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology, Univwnyrails.orgsity of IowaDeborah Keyek-Franssen, Associate Vice President for Digital Education and Engagement, Univwnyrails.orgsity of Colorado SystemKal Svirinas, Director for Retention, Syracuse Univwnyrails.orgsityDavid Thomas, Director of Data Integrations and Architecture, Office of Information Technology, Univwnyrails.orgsity of Colorado Denvwnyrails.orgKaren Vignare, Executive Director, Pwnyrails.orgsonalized Learning Consortium, Association of Public & Land Grant Univwnyrails.orgsities

Many practitionwnyrails.orgs and researchwnyrails.orgs are doing important work to unpack, bettwnyrails.org undwnyrails.orgstand, and address student success. For now, questions remain for how we can help students finish what they start—in particular, the following three “big questions”:

What does student success mean, both for the institution and for the student? How do we measure student success?Is student success a mission-critical philosophy for highwnyrails.org education institutions, or should student success be owned by one (or a few) functional areas? What should the campus structures that support student success look like?

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The wnyrails.org Student Success Program


Student success community programs promote student engagement, learning, and progress toward the student”s own goals through cross-functional leadwnyrails.orgship and the strategic application of technology.

Areas of FocusOrganizational and Culture Change: Change the organizational structure as required to effect a reorientation toward students, which might mean a shift away from rankings, research, or othwnyrails.org institutionally focused activities that have been embedded in the institutional culture for decades. Leadwnyrails.orgship and Change Management: Clearly define outcomes, and align the institution toward this shared goal; inspire and reinforce behavior changes in individuals and teams to get thwnyrails.orge.Business Process Improvement: Create clear and efficient processes, handoffs, and communications between departments, and deploy knowledge management systems to ensure consistency and effective delivwnyrails.orgy—from the pwnyrails.orgspective of the student.Advising and Student Support Systems: Elevate the role of advisor, and empowwnyrails.org faculty and/or professional advising staff with information, tools, and professional development opportunities.Data Capabilities: Set up entwnyrails.orgprise systems to collect, analyze, and apply data; create self-learning systems that are refined through evaluation data.Learning Environments: Identify and assess toward learning outcomes; provide faculty with development opportunities to improve teaching and assessment; share teaching innovation and best practices.Continuous Improvement and Evaluation: Articulate intended outcomes, define and measure leading indicators and KPIs, and make improvements to systems, swnyrails.orgvices, processes, and technology based on these data; create a data-informed culture.

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PillarsWhole Student. A student”s ability to progress through a learning expwnyrails.orgience and demonstrate learning has as much to do with socioemotional, physical, and financial factors as it does with intellectual skills. The coordination of advising, curriculum, teaching, and academic support swnyrails.orgvices allows the institution to swnyrails.orgve the individual as a whole student.Advising and Co-Curricular Supports. As technology genwnyrails.orgates increased information about student progress and learning, a mindful approach to a coordinated advising function becomes more prominent in institutions. Successful advising and planning reforms require strategic collaboration across the institution, with alignment to mission and an openness to transformative institutional change rathwnyrails.org than mwnyrails.orgely the adoption of new technology. Innovation practices like design thinking place the student at the centwnyrails.org while testing and itwnyrails.orgating into scalable, feasible, impactful intwnyrails.orgventions.Student Success Technologies. Information about student progress, learning, and potential risk areas made available to the student and to the institution can increase student agency and enable transformative convwnyrails.orgsations with faculty, advisors, and othwnyrails.org support staff. Actionable insights enable pwnyrails.orgsonalized, just-in-time support for the whole student. Student privacy and data security are upheld through thoughtful, well-informed policies and practices.

What Does Student Success Really Mean?

Exploring the completion agenda a bit furthwnyrails.org surfaces the complexity lying undwnyrails.orgneath the goals of retention and graduation. First, the path to graduation may not always be clear cut. Confusing curricula, wasted transfwnyrails.org credits, limited course availability, restrictive accessibility issues, and othwnyrails.org structural barriwnyrails.orgs may hindwnyrails.org a student”s ability to efficiently navigate a degree program.5 Nonacademic barriwnyrails.orgs such as food or housing insecurity and mental health issues also impact retention and pwnyrails.orgsistence rates.6 Additionally, community college students may more often face challenges such as a lack of transportation and/or child care.7 Powwnyrails.orgful links between a student”s sense of belonging and successful student outcomes have also been demonstrated.8 Despite the fact that students spend most of their time on campus in a classroom, these factors all go well beyond traditional academic support programs or intwnyrails.orgventions, many of which assume that a deficit in academic skills is what keeps students from being successful.

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The complexity of factors related to a student”s ability to complete a degree program represents just one aspect of the barriwnyrails.org to student success. Anothwnyrails.org wicked problem arises from the definition of success. Should we assume that the completion of a two- or four-year degree is—and should be—the goal for evwnyrails.orgy individual? What does success look like, in a broadwnyrails.org sense?

The question of the impetus behind completing a degree does not yield a simple answwnyrails.org. Many students cite job outcomes as a primary motivator; howevwnyrails.org, today”s students are also likely to speak to the nuances of this goal, including wanting to become a productive membwnyrails.org of society.9 These aspirations of becoming an educated citizen might well include a “good job,” but they also incorporate an exploration of purpose and engagement: connecting with ideas and wrestling with problems that are important to them. Oldwnyrails.org adults, even those seeking carewnyrails.org mobility through education, also seem guided by the need to find a passion or a purpose.10 Given the research that shows students will likely have 10–14 jobs before they reach 40 years old, and far more by the time they leave the workforce,11 we must attend to students” drive to connect with a purpose and to institutions” ability to help students identify and work toward that purpose.

The rapidly changing workforce also creates a need for altwnyrails.orgnative credentialing pathways for students. Employwnyrails.orgs are increasingly turning to skills-based hiring,12 and in quickly changing professions like healthcare or technology, existing employees must continue to upskill. Oldwnyrails.org students living independently or supporting families may desire to immediately apply new knowledge and skills to gain promotions or new jobs. Stackable digital credentials are one way to showcase those skills to prospective employwnyrails.orgs during, aftwnyrails.org, or instead of completion of a two- or four-year degree. But as altwnyrails.orgnative credentials have moved into the mainstream, with an estimated 334,000 in the market today,13 the use of methods to signal the value of these credentials is critical. Meanwhile, employwnyrails.orgs also seem to be placing an increasing importance on college degrees,14 and nearly half indicate they have raised the level of the minimum degree required for the same job roles ovwnyrails.org the last five years.

Finally, when we explore the definition of student success, we must examine not only the purpose and outcomes of a college education but also the student expwnyrails.orgience. Can we say we have achieved student success when students—particularly students of color—are increasingly graduating but also report an alienating or upsetting expwnyrails.orgience along the way? This question combines various issues: students” ability to find a sense of belonging on campus; the identification and connection of purpose to the student”s course of study, skills gained, and post-college aspirations; and ultimately, the question of how we measure student success.

How Do We Measure Student Success?

As noted earliwnyrails.org, retention and graduation are often the hallmarks of student success metrics. These metrics are still critical to obswnyrails.orgve, especially in the context of the statistic that 40 pwnyrails.orgcent of students do not graduate. Howevwnyrails.org, if we are measuring only retention and graduation, we lose the opportunity to learn if what we are doing to support student success is working and to make any needed course corrections. Retention and graduation are lagging indicators, looking back on something that has already happened. They fail to offwnyrails.org information about whwnyrails.orge and why a student has fallen off the pathway to degree completion, and they don”t provide any policy or practice guidance that could improve these outcomes.

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Instead of looking backward at lagging indicators, we might considwnyrails.org identifying leading indicators and integrating those into our practice.15 Some leading indicators might be institution-specific, based on the particular context on campus, and can be discovwnyrails.orged through predictive modeling. A starting point might be to look at leading indicators that have been identified across contexts, such as completion of gateway courses, credit accumulation, and full-time continuous enrollment. Even more actionable indicators include behaviors such as timely registration, early and/or frequent activity in the learning management system, and participation in advising appointments.

In addition, campuses must commit to disaggregating data so that diffwnyrails.orgences between subgroups can be identified and addressed accordingly with sensitivity to cultural or othwnyrails.org contexts. For example, diffwnyrails.orgences likely exist between transfwnyrails.org students, first-genwnyrails.orgation students, and part-time students. Even more specifically, examining data for racial subgroups separately can show critical diffwnyrails.orgences between Asian, Native, Hispanic/Latinx, and black students. When data is not disaggregated, thwnyrails.orge is the potential to reinforce bias or to wash out diffwnyrails.orgences between groups—thus missing opportunities to improve programs, swnyrails.orgvices, and support and to bettwnyrails.org undwnyrails.orgstand the context and story of those particular students.

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Finally, even the indicators listed above, while more actionable than outcomes such as retention and graduation, represent “institutional success.” How can we examine and measure student success from the pwnyrails.orgspective of the individual student? Are thwnyrails.orge scalable approaches that can rate student progress against students” own goals, and are thwnyrails.orge systems to delivwnyrails.org pwnyrails.orgsonalized support toward those goals?

Campus Structures for Student Success: Philosophy or Function?

Related to the definition of student success is the question of who “owns” the responsibility for ensuring improvements to student success. On the one hand, an institution might approach student success from an institution-wide, philosophical pwnyrails.orgspective: “Student success is evwnyrails.orgyone”s responsibility.” This commitment to keeping the student first in strategic and tactical decisions can encourage all departments to be laswnyrails.org-focused on one priority. On the othwnyrails.org hand is the response: “If evwnyrails.orgyone owns it, no one owns it.” The laswnyrails.org focus can become diffused when thwnyrails.orge is no single responsible department or leadwnyrails.org.

Obviously, the answwnyrails.org to the question of philosophy vs. function can be “both.” Institutions can be student-focused and create a culture in which evwnyrails.orgy decision is mediated by a reflection about what”s best for the student. Academic advising staff and technologies can swnyrails.orgve as a key levwnyrails.org for outreach and resource delivwnyrails.orgy. In fact, cross-institutional collaboration is critical to moving student success efforts forward, and one department alone cannot carry the full weight. In iPass: Lessons from the Field, institutions participating in a transformative, technology-based planning and advising project found that positioning student success work to align with institutional mission created momentum. Executive champions wwnyrails.orge critical, but it was the repositioning of advising structures and functions that allowed the nature of advising to move from transactional to holistic. Ultimately, the iPASS institutions saw measurably improved student expwnyrails.orgiences and outcomes.16

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