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Student success: what it should mean

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Colleges and universities are enamored by the term “student success.” Most define student success with data points like retention rates, time to completion, graduation rates and other measurable institutional outcomes that are believed to be true indicators of student success rates. In some ways, I don’t disagree. As a self-proclaimed data enthusiast, I am a strong advocate for the use of data to inform decisions and provide direction. After all, it is hard to know how far one needs to go without knowing where you are right now and how far you may have already come. Thus, I agree with the concept of using some institutional data to help define and measure student success, but it needs to be the right type of data. Unfortunately, in many cases the data used for measurement also causes higher education institutions to ignore the most important aspect of student success … the student.

Some will argue that because the previously described indicators relate to students and their higher education journeys, that they accurately gauge when students are being successful and when they are not. This also means that student success assumes that every student has the same goals and achieving those goals can be measured in the same manner. This rationale is counterintuitive to what is typically understood as success. Generally, most people measure success in terms of their goals. Simply stated, if we achieve a goal then we believe that we have also achieved a measure of success. However,  what success looks like for one person could look very different for another even if the goal is the same. This is how some higher education institutions’ definition and measurement of student success gets lost. When student success is perceived as a destination, colleges and universities tend to focus on aggregate outcomes that can be easily tracked. However, when institutions construe student success as a compilation of individualized journeys, they are able to better understand that student success is more dependent on how students define this term than how it is defined for them personally. I meet goal-oriented students every day, each having identified different milestones to mark their progress along the way to their goals. Some focus on their academic progress and others focus on their career progression while completing their degree. For some, simply overcoming challenges and obstacles in their daily lives in order to be present and engaged in their education represents their milestones. There are no data points for these challenges to overcome and individualized goals. 

While it is true that persisting through and successfully completing a degree program within a specified amount of time constitutes as an important measure of success in higher education, the milestones that students define as success markers on their educational journeys must also be included in their definition of student success. In my opinion, it is a collaborative construction in which higher education institutions must work to understand the individualized components of success for each student and respond accordingly. Data-informed institutional student support initiatives can and should certainly respond to the cumulative needs of students to help enable their success. However, understanding each student’s individual journey allows colleges and universities to better meet students where they are and to define success with them, not for them. 

Dr. Sean Huddleston is president of Martin University, Indiana’s only predominately Black institution (PBI) of higher education.

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