Higher education institutions typically use quantitative metrics like year-to-year retention rates, graduation rates, and post-secondary outcomes to measure student success. Most, if not all, institutions are required to report these data to government, regulatory, and accreditation agencies, and use them for benchmarking and measuring progress towards goals. To date, however, the student perspective of what success means — and what barriers stand in the way of achieving it — has often been omitted from these practices.

Our research with seven partner community colleges has documented the ways that student definitions of what constitutes success, as well as their understanding of the barriers and challenges to achieving success, expand significantly beyond what is captured by traditional metrics. And, their most pressing challenges often relate to balancing family, household, work, and school responsibilities as well as having enough money to pay for their courses and their basic needs. While many of these challenges take place outside of the classroom, they nonetheless can and do have a substantial impact on academic success.

When higher education institutions prioritize a narrow set of metrics, they may fail to incorporate the whole student experience in developing corresponding support services. Over the next two years, with generous support from the ECMC Foundation, we will pursue research that centers students and their basic needs in the development of more holistic measures of success. Our aim is to discover how to meet the most pressing needs of students and the corresponding challenges faced by higher education leaders.

To kick off this project, we will inventory how community colleges in particular — given their especially diverse student populations and corresponding needs — are currently defining and measuring success and identify barriers to the implementation of alternative metrics. This phase of research will produce a comprehensive literature review to establish a shared vocabulary and understanding of current institutional practices in holistically defining student success. We will then conduct exploratory interviews with community college provosts, followed by a national survey, to determine their openness to alternative metrics and awareness of the challenges their students face around basic needs. Based on these data, we will conclude by designing new holistic measures of success and developing implementation strategies for these metrics.

We hope that this work will enable community college leaders to recognize, prioritize, and focus efforts on a broader range of student goals, and ultimately, allow community colleges to improve student outcomes. We will be sharing research reports and blog posts on this project over the next two years and look forward to engaging with the higher education community on these important issues.