While many colleges see enabling “student success” as a top priority, what actually defines the term can vary widely depending on who is defining it. As such, it is hard—perhaps impossible—to have a single, quantifiable, and operational definition. In this post, I unpack how a few key stakeholders—community college students and administrators—have conceptualized this seemingly loaded term in our research along with questions for further reflection as we embark on a new project.

Over the past few years, we have talked to and surveyed community college students as well as administrators in academic and student affairs to better understand what defines success, what hinders the achievement of it, and what services might be provided to overcome these obstacles.

We started our investigation with interviews of students at seven colleges on their goals and challenges. Through these interviews, we heard varied definitions of success that spanned from improving career prospects to advancing their personal development to gaining knowledge. We heard from students who viewed their college education as a means to an end, while some expressed the value of this experience in and of itself; many viewed it as a combination of the two. These findings were further confirmed through a subsequent survey of over 10,000 students.

These definitions of success prompted us to query college administrators on their own conceptualizations in the context of a broader project focused on how student services are currently organized, funded, and staffed to help students achieve their goals. We surveyed 249 leaders in academic and student affairs who specified that the objectives considered most important to their college and to the services under their own leadership are increasing retention, graduation, and course completion—in other words, the metrics that have traditionally been associated with success.

Persistence and completion clearly take center stage for these higher education leaders. While these outcomes are obviously important from the student perspective as well, they aren’t the only—or in some cases, the primary—way that students define their own success. What are college administrators missing by employing these traditional metrics? What parts of the student experience aren’t being sufficiently surfaced?

From our own and others’ research, we know that students are often juggling a combination of employment and coursework responsibilities. Many struggle with affording their courses and course materials. A substantial share—70 percent at community colleges and 61 percent at four-year institutions—experience food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness. Student parents and caregivers also face unique challenges related to childcare and other family responsibilities.

Traditional metrics of success recognized by colleges, such as retention and graduation, may not sufficiently take into account these that are food insecure, homeless, or cannot secure affordable and reliable child care or transportation. If college leaders are to improve long-term, traditional outcomes like persistence and completion, they need to have a clear picture of the challenges—many of which take place outside of the classroom—that are preventing students from achieving these goals.

We have just launched a new project, funded by ECMC Foundation, focused on developing holistic student success metrics that more deeply center students and their basic needs. To kick off this work, we are developing a landscape overview of how institutions are currently defining student success in both traditional and novel ways. The following questions have come up as key in our investigation:

  • What is the relationship between these traditional metrics and those that are more centered on the holistic student experience? What are the characteristics that define “holistic” metrics of success?
  • What are the limitations of traditional metrics— like persistence and completion—in a community college context? What special considerations need to be made for two-year colleges?
  • To what extent do colleges have mechanisms in place for students—with their advisors or otherwise—to document their self-generated goals?
  • Of all the student success data that colleges are collecting, what data do they generally choose to post in public venues? What data are not reported out on or otherwise publicized, but used for internal improvements alone?
  • Are current metrics of success purely quantitative? To what extent are qualitative metrics used to evaluate student success?
  • What new metrics can be developed to provide a better picture of current community college students and their definitions of success?

What questions do you have on this topic? What would you like to see us explore?

We look forward to sharing insights as our research develops.