Defining Student Success

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

At the start of all our Retention 101 workshops, I ask participants how they define student success. I give them a few minutes and make them write it down. Then we share. Over the years, I have collected over a thousand definitions from people. Here are some verbatim (e.g., unedited) samples from recent participants:

My Definition of Student Success is:

  • Student graduates with bachelor’s degree;
  • Completion of an undergraduate degree in a timely manner;
  • It’s defined by successful completion of an undergraduate degree in a specified timeframe;
  • First-time freshmen who graduate within four years;
  • Degree completion;
  • Maintain GPA for major and graduate;
  • We want to see our students achieve and obtain their goal and dreams of their career and in their personal and professional role in life;
  • Having students that can learn, process what they learn, and be able to critically think in clinical and life situations;
  • Where the student determines what it is he/she should do with their life to be self-sufficient, happy and a contributor to society, and then pursues that self-determination;
  • Supporting the overall student experience, providing opportunities for students to grow personally, develop relationships and social skills, as well succeed academically. Student success is a combination of the personal, social, and academic supports, and collaboration among campus partners, departments and faculty/staff is required to achieve this initiative.

I like to remind participants that an appropriate definition of student success depends greatly upon an individual’s vantage point and can vary greatly depending on whether it emanates from a student, instructional faculty, college staff, the community at large, or policymaker. Note that the list above is truly bifurcated into two separate viewpoints. The first is harder and more concrete. In this view, student success is about graduating students. Getting them through. Given that these comments came from higher education practitioners, including vice presidents, deans, faculty, and staff, it is no wonder—and not incorrect—for them to focus on achievement. Success means retention and persistence to most of us, because that’s how we see if from semester to semester. Ultimately, “who shows up” matters to us. The second set of bullets are more holistic and brings into play the life goals and outcomes of the individual. Themes of growth, happiness, and self-determination echo the belief that higher education is more than a piece of parchment. Rather, it is about contributing to society and making the most of the college opportunity. Bettering oneself. Bettering society.

Both perspectives are completely correct. I always ask our workshop attendees to consider the definition from a student’s point of view as well as their own. I think legislators have a more concrete idea of what student success means and it translates mostly into the first grouping of definitions. There are more numbers to consider on the policy front.

Beyond mission statement, it is important for a college or university to ensure that faculty, staff, and students share a definition of what student success is, and perhaps as importantly, what it looks like. Student success, to me, is both a goal—a place to get to—and a vehicle to get there. It is process and outcome on a parallel track. Particularly for institutions, it is essential to understand the building blocks of student success. Ultimately, student success—regardless of definition—is based on policies and practices of the institution. Yes, much is on the back of students and their attitudes, behaviors, situations, and prior preparation. But for the institution, it comes down to what, why, when, and how we do what we do.

WHAT institutions do is critical to student success. Whether the policies and practices of the financial aid office or the instructional methods of particular staff members, what the institution chooses to do—and also what they choose not to do—impacts student success greatly. The institution has great latitude in its decision making. There are state and federal guidelines to contend with, complete with hoops and barriers that make operating an institution both complex and, at times, perplexing. But all institutions deal with the same legalities and rulemaking. The institution has ultimate control over what it does and must think critically about how the campus rules, regulations, and educational practices impact how students persist.

What institutions do is one thing, but the student success dialogue comes down to WHY institutions do these things. I mentioned the obvious legal issues. But beyond that, practitioners must reflect and ask whether the local rules make sense. Are they there just because they always have been? We are all familiar with people saying they do things because ‘that’s the way it has always been done!’ It’s a funny statement when you think about it. The day I start working at a campus, yesterday becomes “always.” If I am told by a staff member that this is the policy on X, Y, and Z, then, in my mind, those three policies have “always” been that way, giving way to not questioning them. That attitude is part of higher education culture. We know that institutional policies and practices started somewhere, and often started for good reason. Occasionally they were installed for wrong reasons that were applied to new circumstances. For this reason, institutions must continually review policies and practices through the lens of student success. “Why do we do this?” “To what purpose will this help or hinder student success on our campus?” These are important questions that institutions rarely pursue and a primary reason why I see many institutions fail on their retention and success efforts. Barriers for barriers sake is not good retention policy.

Third, the WHEN question is also significant. Many institutions do many of the right things to help students meet their goals and expectations. But they don’t always do them at the right time. Thus, “when” can become as critical as anything else related to student success. The best example I can think of is the example of First Year Experience programs. There exists amply research by John Gardner and his colleagues in North Carolina, let alone others, on the value of providing student-based strategies for academic success. Many, if not most, institutions have FYE programs of one ilk or another. The research is unequivocal and most of us collectively nod our head in agreement. However, a surprise to many people at Retention 101 is that research clearly illustrates that many more students leave college in the outlying years as during or immediately after the first year. In fact, about the same percentage leave in sophomore year as during the freshman year, and an equal percentage leave after the start of the third year as in each of the first two. I present these data points often in presentations and have written extensively on this issue.[1] When I ask Retention 101 participants when their students leave, most hands come up when I say “during the first semester.” Why? Because that’s how we have programmed our faculty and staff to think. For them, students leave three weeks after orientation or right after midterms. The truth is that many students do leave at those times. And the greater truth is that many of those students should never have been enrolled because they weren’t academically qualified to succeed (it hurts, but it is also true in many cases). But the assumption that students primarily leave in the first semester is vastly incorrect. For this reason, institutions need to take many of the things they do in FYE and do them during the second and third year and fourth years. Certainly not in the same ways, but in an evolved manner through support services and instruction. And just because students adequately get through their freshman year doesn’t mean they gained all the requisite skills to complete the following years. In most disciplines, coursework gets much more difficult as the program gains speed. Students require appropriate skillsets to maintain academic progress via some things that we commonly take for granted, including time management, reading and comprehension, and study skills. These are all are necessary components of a student success strategy.

Finally, HOW an institution does things also matters. You can identify the needs and gaps that impact students and you can define when you do these things. But if you don’t do them particularly well, it becomes a losing proposition. For example, having a tutoring center for students is a good thing. Having untrained, underprepared tutors is not. Having two dozen sections of Introduction to English Studies may be good. Having them all between the hours of 8 and 12 noon is not. You can think up your own examples, I’m sure. There is a difference between simply doing things rather than doing things well. The latter matters greatly. Whatever institutions decide to do, it must not just decide, but guarantee that they do them well.

If I am an institutional administrator, I never want to hear that a student left because of “us.” That is, because of something we did—or worse—chose not to do. That’s an ethical disaster for educators at any level. And, to be clear, if an unnecessary policy remains in the books that inhibits student persistence, that becomes “our choice” because it is in our power and responsibility to change it. “We” don’t want to be the reason for departure. Clearly, students leave for a variety of reasons. Some good. Some less good. They leave for family reasons. Health. They leave because they have to figure out some things before they can be academically successful. They also leave for money. For love. For drugs. And sometimes they leave because they realize they aren’t cut out for college. At least not right then and there.

For us, we want to provide safety nets to ensure that students who can succeed do succeed. For others, we want to help them find their best path forward without us. Sometimes counseling a student to take time off or attend a different, better-fit institution is a job well done. And yes—depending on the level of analysis, losing students can look bad for us. But it remains part of lur ethical responsibility.

I often think how Vince Tinto regards the issue of access and opportunity. “It is simply not enough to provide low-income students access to our universities and colleges and claim we are providing opportunity if we do not construct environments that support their efforts to learn and succeed beyond access. Simply put, access without support is not opportunity.[2]

Vince is correct, of course. We owe all students the same opportunity. If we let them in, we owe them our best effort. Not just in the classroom, but in all other activities, policies, and structural issues that impact student success.

In the end, what we do, why we do it, when we do it, and how we do it matters. In fact, student success depends on it.

NOTE: The cover photo of this piece is of our January 2019 Retention 101 participants.


[1] See this Swail Letter for more information on student departure: https://theswailletter.com/2011/06/03/understanding-student-departure/.

[2] Tinto, Vincent (2008). Access without Support is Not Opportunity. Presented at the 36 Annual Institute for Chief Academic Officers, The Council of Independent Colleges, November 1, 2008, Seattle, Washington.

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