Missing the Forest for the Trees: Challenges in Defining Student Success

September 15th 2017

You know the drill. As calls for accountability and the justification of allocated resources in higher education increase, so too does the need for institutions to be able to quantify the success of their students. But there are challenges in defining student success. In most conversations, “student success” typically focuses on academic performance, retention (especially from the first to second year), and graduation rates. It makes sense, especially given the movement in recent years toward performance-based funding models that commonly use metrics such as retention as part of state funding for public higher education.

But, how often do we take a moment to step back and think about how, and why, we define student success as we do? And is there a benefit to broadening our perspective?

It may come as a surprise, but emerging research and literature on student success are already broadening the accepted definition to focus on other outcomes and measures, including student engagement, personal development, and even post-college outcomes. When combined with the existing, traditional measures such as academic performance, retention, and graduation, the concept of student success becomes vast indeed. Even so, there are few high-level models that address the real breadth of student success definitions. Most existing definitions of student success are focused on narrow topics:

  • Most definitions focus on academic-related topics, such as grades, year-to-year retention (in particular, from the first to second year) and degree attainment (Kuh et al., 2006).
  • Cuseo (2014) noted that the most common measures of student success include retention, educational attainment (degree completion), academic achievement, student advancement (ie, that students proceed to other endeavors for which their degree prepared them, such as graduate school or gainful employment), and holistic development (intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, etc.).
  • One study on perceptions of success as defined by students includes categories such as academic achievement, social engagement, life management, and academic engagement (Jennings, Lovett, Cuba, Swingle, & Lindkvist, 2013).
  • Additional efforts have begun to shift definitions of success to include post-graduation outcomes, the most common of which is employment.

Challenges in Defining Student Success: Domains, Measures, Levels

The challenge in defining student success—and sharing those definitions within an institution or department—is that there is no overarching framework in the literature and research to help us think through the possible options. Any single definition of student success could fall under various domains, measures, and levels.

As an exercise, let’s take a look at what challenges in defining student success arise when we consider just one of those three factors – levels.

For every institution there are challenges in defining student success at all levels.

The diagram above frames various levels within (and outside of) an institution at which student success could be measured, starting from an individual level and moving all the way to a global/humanity level. At a glance, the levels seem intuitive enough. But, have we stopped to consider how definitions of success across levels can be contradictory?

For instance, success at the individual or student level may not be the best outcome for a department or an institution to measure. Major changes are a common part of the college experience. In fact, according to Mapworks data, one in four first-year students who have declared a major are already saying they are not committed to that major at the beginning of fall term. Many of these students will change majors and go on to graduate. While this would be considered successful for both the individual and the institution, it may not necessarily be successful for the academic department, in particular if number of students in a particular major is a driving factor in funding decisions. Success is not simply a black or white issue as soon as we start to think within a broader, unified framework.

This framework gets even more complicated if you consider levels above and outside of a single institution. What if a student transfers to another institution, graduates with a nursing degree, passes a certification exam, and becomes a high-performing professional? By most standards, this should be considered a success. But, again, it depends on what level we are looking at. This would be considered successful for the student, the institution from which the student ultimately graduated, the healthcare industry, and for humanity as a whole! But no matter what the first institution did to help this student along their path as a nurse, at the end of the day, student attrition is rarely a marker of any institution’s success.

As we start a new academic year and begin building or refining our plans related to retention and success, let’s begin by reflecting on a few things that can help guide our efforts when addressing the challenges in defining student success:

  • What do you think of when you hear the term “student success?” Why?
  • How does your campus currently define and measure student success?
  • When you talk with others on campus about student success, are you taking time to define what you mean by success?
  • Are there ways that we can work across our institutions to ensure our definitions of success are not contradictory?

Looking for more information about defining success, including how we measure success? View our recent webinar on the challenges in defining student success.

Cuseo, J. (2014). The Big Picture: Key Causes of Student Attrition & Key Components of a Comprehensive Student Retention Plan. Esource for College Transitions.
Jennings, N., Lovett, S., Cuba, L., Swingle, J. and Lindkvist, H. (2013). What Would Make This a Successful Year for You? How Students Define Success in College. Liberal Education, 99(2).