Student Success Part I: Are we clear about what this means?


June 17, 2019
Terry L. Mills, Ph.D., Guest Blogger

While our evaluation firm focuses on measuring the effectiveness of initiatives, ultimately our goal is about identifying effective student success practices.  While serving as the evaluator of John Carroll University’s Aligned Learning Communities and Student Thriving: A First in the World Project, Terry L. Mills, Ph.D., the project director, shared with our team a blog that he had written about  how student success is defined.

In this two-part blog on student success, we are first sharing this article in which Dr. Mills provides his perspective. Be sure to read all the way to the conclusion where he lists questions to consider when one is defining student success. Dr. Mills is assistant provost for Diversity and Inclusion and sociology professor at John Carroll University. He applied for the First in the World grant, and John Carroll University was one 17 institutions to receive this grant from the U.S. Department of Education grant in 2015.

In the second blog on this topic (that will post on August 15), I will provide the perspective of a researcher and program evaluator on this key issue.

In 2018, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accreditation body released a report suggesting “current discussions and measures of student success are based on a construct that does not represent students now enrolled in U.S. postsecondary education institutions.”

In particular, HLC said the focus on completion too often ignores individual students’ intent or educational goals. The current use of completion metrics and approaches often result in privileging certain types of learners, and do not adequately address the barriers or priorities of nontraditional students. This current approach also undervalues certain types of institutions and programs, such as community and technical colleges. The challenge in using the current approach to define students’ success is that many community and technical colleges typically do not fare as well as four-year institutions on completion metrics because most of their students are working adults and not first-time, full-time ones.

According to the HLC, a more flexible student success framework, with students at its center, would include measures of “attainment of learning outcomes, personal satisfaction and goal/intent attainment, job placement and career advancement, civic and life skills, social and economic well-being, and commitment to lifelong learning,”

Many institutions make grand claims about the educational experiences they seek to provide. You can find such claims in various institutional documents and communications such as in mission statements, admissions materials, at commencement ceremonies, at trustee meetings. These claims then become an important part of the “cultural language” of the institution that serves as a sort of moral compass that keeps us on the path toward the core values of our colleges (Jennings, et al.).

Perhaps routinely, these core values are tightly woven into the standards by which we measure our success in educating students. If our students lose themselves in “intellectual discovery” or become “men and women for others” to make a difference in the world, we will have done our job. For sure many of our students hope they will indeed graduate with these abilities. But our students are also exposed to numerous other perspectives on the college experience. And no perspective is more prominent, particularly in these tough economic times, than the one that defines college success as landing a good (i.e., high-paying) job or gaining admission to a top-ranked graduate or professional school. From this standpoint, the question “will a liberal arts degree be worth it?” means “will it pay off financially?”

With this understandable concern vying for students’ attention, how well do the life aspirations expressed in our colleges’ mission statements and core values shape the way students define their own success? In this regard, Jennings and colleagues conducted a study of students’ definition of success over the four years of their college experience. They found, for example that academic achievement (e.g., getting good grades, declaring a major, planning for study abroad) was more important than academic engagement, such as developing a breath of knowledge, or a love of learning. More than 80% of the students defined success using one of these academic achievement themes, with “getting good grades” being the most common response.

The Jennings et al. study also found that social and residential life to be significant to students’ definition of success. This includes making new friends, maintaining relationships, participation in extracurricular activities. This category was most prominent in the first year (71%), and declined over the college experience, resting at 56% in year four.

Life management themes also were associated with students’ definitions of success.  Elements of life management included maintaining psychological and physical well-being, work-ethic issues (e.g., better time management, developing effective study skills), and balancing academics with one’s social or personal life. Defining success in terms of life management was relatively common (44–82% each year), but the peak was during year three (82%), and lowest in first two years.

Another category focused on academic engagement: expressing a desire to learn, to take interesting classes or explore new subject areas, or to engage in independent research. Jennings and colleagues were surprised that more students did not define success in these terms. Those who did (30–53% each year) mostly talked about wanting to learn—until the senior year, when students linked their definitions of success to independent research or honors projects.

So, why is it that for students, success is more related to getting good grades than being academically engaged? Jennings and colleagues suggest that to answer this question, we need to learn more about how they learned, what they learned, what challenges their ideas, or what really got their attention?


Fain, P. (2018).  Accreditor on Defining Student Success. December 12, 2018. Inside Higher Education  

Higher Learning Commission. (2018).  Defining Student Success Data: Recommendations for Changing the Conversation.

Jennings, N., Lovett, S., Cuba, L., Swingle, J., and Lindkvist, H. (n.d)

What Would Make This A Successful Year For You: – How Students Define Success. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Available online at:


Terry Mills, PhD is the former inaugural assistant provost for diversity and inclusion, and chief diversity officer at John Carroll University, University Heights, OH. Currently, he serves as project director for the John Carroll First in the world grant that focuses on factors associated with student success and thriving.

Prior to joining John Carroll, he served as dean of humanities and social science at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA; and associate dean for minority affairs at the University of Florida.

Dr. Mills is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, the 2009 recipient of the Outstanding Mentor Award from the GSA Taskforce on Minority Issues in Aging, and a 2005 recipient of the William R. Jones Outstanding Mentor Award from the Florida Education Fund/McKnight Doctoral Fellows Program.