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Garbled lines representing goals all lead to a target, after which arrows point toward the same direction.

Different paths and ideas lead to success in college, and beyond.

iStock / Getty Images + / marrio31 

Graduating. Graduating on time. Graduating with manageable student loan debt. Graduating with technical and people skills needed to launch a career. Thinking about the completion aspect alone, the essence of what student success is varies widely. Add in all the steps required to reach these accomplishments and the barriers along the way. Then consider the many perspectives of higher ed professionals helping to support students in that journey and whether those working in all corners of campus should be viewing student success through the same lens.

Those are some of the large- and small-group points made earlier this month in a workshop at Student Success US, hosted by Times Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed in partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles.

In a pre-event discussion and as a kickoff to breakout discussions during the live event, the workshop’s four panelists took on four big questions related to student success definitions and measurement.

1. How do we define student success?

Any attempt to define it is dependent on the audience, noted Diane Z. Chase, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Houston, as well as vice chancellor for academic affairs for the UH System. “For most of us, we’re looking at things we can benchmark, like persistence and degree completion. But it’s about communication skills, critical thinking, the whole person. It’s about preparation for what happens next. That can be: Do they have jobs? Are they in grad school? Depending on who [we are] talking to, we might focus on one space versus the other.”

Giving one example, an area of focus for deans discussing student success may be what’s happening in courses with high rates of Ds, Fs or withdrawals.

Eileen L. Strempel, the inaugural dean of and a professor in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, will speak about definitions in terms of what is equitable student success. “We’re trying to think proactively about structures and data-tested interventions that we continue to see, and what it means to serve the broader public,” she said.

Student success is also wrapped up in students’ sense of belonging, said Louie F. Rodríguez, vice provost dean of undergraduate education at University of California, Riverside, whose research has included a school/community-based initiative aimed at understanding student engagement and disengagement. He asks, “Are they engaged? Are they serving as peer mentors? Are they ready for their communities, for society, for the world?”

Conversations about understanding what student success is focus on “layers and drivers,” said Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, vice president for student success for the Indiana University System. “I’ve been very intentional about not saying ‘IU’s definition of student success is …’ That ignores the layered issues, and it undermines the message that we’re trying to support, that it’s not one person’s job. Everyone has a role in it.”

2. How do we reconcile students’ definitions of success with the institution’s view of success?

When Rodríguez speaks with students—who may be focused on being in their major of choice, getting good grades and doing research with faculty, to give a few examples—he will tell them this: “Academic or student success is everything you could imagine and so much more.”

As he thinks about high-impact practices in his work, it involves helping to support students in whatever they want to pursue. In addition, he said, “It’s our role as institutional agents to paint that broader picture of what student success is.”

Strempel added that meeting the needs of students both inside and outside of the classroom involves hearing their voices and using the right language around student success. “Over the course of the last half a decade, we’ve seen a pandemic, a time of racial reckoning, January 6th, and numerous brutal global conflicts,” she said. “Given this backdrop, it is no wonder that our students have become increasingly attuned to language and the subtexts that they discern. When we discuss ‘student success,’ it sets up a binary where students either succeed or fail. We fail to be truly student-centric by failing to include with our language choices [for] students with a more nuanced personal journey and definition of success.”

She challenges higher ed to consider the following questions:

  • What if we were more expansive?
  • What would an Office of Student Thriving look, sound, and feel like instead?

From Chase’s standpoint, conversations with students around student success should not be about the numbers. “It’s about what are their goals and how can we help them get to those goals,” she said. “Our students want a voice.”

Such discussion, however, could involve offering additional perspectives. Many students, for example, would like to graduate but aren’t focused on on-time graduation. “There is a lot of work we do on trying to help students see how they can graduate more quickly so they can not spend more on their education than is necessary,” she said. Higher ed professionals can also help students build excitement for experiences such as undergraduate research, learning abroad or working with a mentor.

3. How do we measure student success throughout the student lifecycle?

For undergraduates, indicators of student success often involve retention, persistence, completion, four- and six-year completion and differences among student groups, such as Pell-eligible, said Chase. “But it’s way, way more than that. One of the things we know enhances student success is engagement. Are we measuring those positive things that correlate highly with student success? It’s all of those pieces. It’s really a kitchen sink enterprise—we can’t say we’re going to fix this one thing and watch for three years and then tweak.”

Higher ed must be willing to think outside the box when coming up with supports, she added. Yet determining when an existing effort is working takes time. “Sometimes we think of an innovation [and] go to colleges and say, ‘we have a great idea.’ Partway through, they say, ‘we have a completely different idea.’”

The COVID pandemic has resulted in new ideas about all the aspects involved in student success. “Think about the Coronavirus blessings: How we pivoted in an unimaginable situation. We saw the Zoom pictures of what students were going through. That brought to the forefront the holes and gaps, meeting needs both in and outside the classroom,” Strempel said. That’s when colleges really began thinking about assisting with not just food and shelter but also Wi-Fi, computers or even an instrument to practice with. “We have more of a 360-view of student needs since COVID,” she said.

Rodríguez added, “We know there are many structural barriers to student success that hinder progress.”

Having more factors to measure brings in a need to consider the language used when offering supports. One example Rodríguez gave was the term academic probation. “Why do we use that for students who are in recovery?”

Payne-Kirchmeier is having similar conversations on her campus now. The term “temporarily withdraw,” for example, is more negative than “take a medical leave.” She noted that “withdraw is so final. You have to frame [it] not as a deficit; an early support, not a warning.”

It’s about “using language that embraces where [students] are,” Strempel said. “The precepts around ‘academic advising’ are also seeming (to me) to be increasingly outdated as well. To advise someone automatically heightens a power differential, where the ‘professional’ advises the ‘student.’ What if we moved instead towards ‘student advocates’ versus ‘student advisers’? The former implies that someone is on your team and looking out for you, helping rather than directing you.”

Chase will also be intentional about language used when speaking to colleagues. Rather than speaking more generally about retention or completion and university goals, she said, “I will talk to deans about how many more student we need to save, need to help. It’s a different framing from saying we need to increase retention by 10 percent.” Broken down by college, that 10 percent might just be a handful of individual students.

4. How can we facilitate a campus-wide, unified approach to student success?

Bridging academic and student affairs was a big goal for Rodríguez coming in to his role six months ago. “I’ve been cultivating strong connections with the vice chancellor of student affairs, and the vice chancellor of wellness. We’ll meet quarterly across student affairs, academic affairs and wellness to discuss student success,” he explained.

Presidents must make facilitating a campus-wide approach a priority, Payne-Kirchmeier said, adding that IU’s president did just that. “It speaks volumes when the president says, ‘this is what we’re going to do’ and then puts resources behind it. We have 17 communities of practice around areas that impact student success … And all staff play a role.”

Chase noted that at UH, academic affairs is working with residence life. “That hasn’t been an academic space, other than with support services. But we have faculty in residence. We need to build that piece.”

In unifying departments across campus, Chase sees the sharing of individual student success stories and how individual staff members have helped as crucial. “Some of the stories are really complicated,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what role you have [in supporting students]. You can see that every person matters.”

Tell us about a unique aspect of a student support initiative on your campus.

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