How do You Define Student Success?

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

It sounds like a Rolaids commercial, I know. But I’m always interested in how people view the issue of student success, since that’s become the vernacular over the past few years. And I’m the guilty party as much as anyone.

We’ve been flinging “student success” around quite liberally, just as we’ve done for “college access” for the better part of 50 years. But as many of us have argued, including my colleague Vince Tinto, “what is college access if not for college success?” We all understand that access is dependent on another important question: “access to what?” because we all know that all access is not equal.

The same can be said for student success. In a definitional sense, we think of success mostly as securing of a college diploma, certificate, or degree. This is because these are more easily measurable and because institutions are tied to graduation rates as a measure of success. And this is the crux. We understand that not all student success can be measured by realization (or “realisation” for my Canuck friends) of a college degree. There are certainly those that “succeed” through transfer to another institution or finding a different pathway to their own personal success.

But we can’t measure these because we do not have the data infrastructure to measure in a complex manner. With the exception of a few states in the US, I can’t tell if Johnny, who enrolled at ABC University in fall of 2002 but transferred in 2004 to DEF Community College, reached any “educational” success. The systems don’t allow for this type of “unit-record” data mining. And I apologize because I’ve written about this before and I may sound like a broken record. But I believe that it is difficult to define student success if we can’t measure what happens, at least educationally, with a student along the complex pathways in postsecondary education, let alone secondary education.

But I’d like to hear from you. How do you define student success? Please email me at

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