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“The Degree Is Cool, But I’m More About the Knowledge”
How Community College Students Define Student Success

“Student success” has moved to the forefront of the higher education agenda. Success at community colleges — and four-year colleges — has often been defined by the achievement of institutional outcomes, predominantly comprised of various measures of student persistence, achievement, and attainment, including rates of transfer, enrollment in postsecondary education, GPA, retention, time to graduation, graduation, and post-graduation job attainment and compensation. However, these traditional measures of student success have often been derived from higher education institutions, state boards of education, and the federal government, thus omitting the important perspective of the student in what defines success. How do community college students themselves define success? What do they need to accomplish during or after their time at college to consider their experience successful?

Through the Community College Libraries & Academic Support for Student Success (CCLASSS) project, we have examined student goals, challenges, and needs from the student perspective through semi-structured, in-depth interviews at seven partner colleges. In this phase of the project, we learned that students have complex definitions of success that focus on both their career and educational achievement as well as their personal development.

Students expressed a number of extrinsic goals that primarily focused on career and/or educational achievement and very much align with institutional metrics of success. These externally-focused, outcome-oriented goals included obtaining a certificate or associate’s degree, getting good grades, career advancement and financial security, and building a pathway towards additional education.

However, these were not the only goals that students expressed. They also highly value their attainment of intrinsic goals that extend well beyond their accumulation of credits, credentials, and preparation for the workforce. These internally-focused, process-oriented indicators of success include gaining knowledge, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and developing social skills and a sense of community. Students view their learning opportunities as having intrinsic value and not simply as means to an end. As one student so clearly articulated, “The degree is cool, but I’m more about the knowledge.”

Students often expressed goals that span both intrinsic and extrinsic objectives or include multiple goals within one of these categories. While we captured their perspectives via interviews at one point in time, these goals change over time as a student’s personal and academic life evolves. This fall, we will be testing via survey a series of service concepts that community colleges may consider offering to meet student needs, and we have taken into consideration both of these important sets of goals in doing so.

It is essential that institutions recognize the importance of the intrinsic goals that students strive to achieve and support them in their attainment of these goals. When they are only measuring student success in achieving extrinsic goals, they are failing to address the complex motivations and needs their students.

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