Student Success Part II: How is it defined and what promotes it?


August 15, 2019

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 shared his blog in which Dr. Mills provides his perspective (click here to read).  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 this second blog on the topic, I am providing the perspective of a researcher and program evaluator on this key issue.

The current post-secondary educational landscape is vastly different than a few decades ago. The students seeking a post-secondary education are far more diverse now than with previous generations. The diversity is not just based on demographic factors but also on educational motives and academic preparedness. Take for instance, many family-sustaining jobs which historically only required a high school equivalence degree, now require some form of post-secondary credential. Four-year institutions which traditionally saw few students working upwards of 20 hours or more per week, now are witnessing an increased number of students that need to work for more than just discretionary funds. From my own teaching experience, it was not uncommon for a particular community college course to have half of the students in the midst of a career transition and already holding a bachelor’s degree.

This diversity introduces complexity that is not fully reflected in the prevailing definition of student success. It is encouraging that there is an awareness of the limitation of the current “accepted” definition of student success that needs to reflect a more student-centered that involves examining engagement and thriving not just academic performance. Hopefully, these conversations will lead to the extensive system-wide changes needed to fully embrace a more flexible definition. Because as is, the definition impacts on how schools are measured, and in many states funded and how students are able to obtain financial aid. In the absence of a system-wide change, a “work around” to address the issue may be to consider the difference between how student success is defined and what promotes student success. Factors such as engagement, thriving, and student-centeredness can be conceptualized as leading indicators of student success within the current framework. Admittedly, this definition is not in alignment with the goal of every student which is why the conversation on the definition of student success should continue. However, if institutions are able to incorporate these components within the support services provided to students then it could be very impactful on requisite outcomes measure related to degree completing students and all students.