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by Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College

Many of you – like our students – have set new goals for 2019. The dictionary definition of success is the attainment of a desired goal; however, we do not often frame student success in relation to the actual goals of our students. In part, because that level of personal data is not traditionally collected, but it is also because of a wide variety of other reasons.

This article intends to provide a very brief overview of this complicated and value-laden topic. I will also make the case for understanding and supporting student goals. My approach is to highlight the common lenses used to discuss student success, to provide examples of the complexities we should acknowledge, and to discuss some examples of institutional metrics and their purpose. I will also comment on the growing interest in skills as a measure of student success, and the need for continued efforts to understand success with an equity lens. I will conclude with some of my hopes for the future of student affairs work in support of student success.

Common Lenses. Some of the best discussions about the complexities of student success that I have found are within Habley, Bloom, and Robbins (2012), and in Braxton (2003). Habley et al. (2012) discuss many of the common terms associated with students (who persist, leave, transfer), terms associated with institutions (retention, graduation, completion, progression) and terms associated with the interaction between students and the institution (involvement, integration, engagement). I often think about persistence as a student goal, retention as an institutional goal, and engagement as the product of both student and institutional effort (a goal for both students and institutions). Using this framework, student success has three foundational lenses – the student, the institution, and the interactions between them. A fourth lens is that of government, which often uses institutional measures – namely rates of retention and graduation – for institutional accountability.

Complexities. Tinto (1993, 2012) reminds us that the experiences that cause leaving college are not the same as those that support staying in college. When students leave, we need to understand if they did so because they were successful in achieving one of their goals (i.e. getting a job, or completing a desired course), or did they leave because of some other personal factor, or did they leave because they were required to by the institution? Unfortunately, retention data does not typically distinguish between voluntary and involuntary withdrawal. Years of work by Dietsche, a Canadian scholar focused on colleges specifically, has advanced some of our understandings of these phenomena. Dietsche argued for a slightly broader picture of student persistence than the traditional dichotomous view. Dietsche used combinations of registration status and academic achievement to produce four persistence outcomes: failed persister, successful persister, failed leaver and successful leaver.

Institutional Metrics. The Center for Community College Student Engagement (2014) found four institutional metrics to be of utmost importance in their data, including fall-to-fall persistence, two gateway course completion outcomes, and an interaction outcome (student engagement). On their own, each of these metrics is a simple and narrow representation of student success; however, they are valuable and serve as strong predictors of graduation. Such data also provides insights into how well specific programs are supporting student success. It also provides a sense of direction and focus – if completion of gateway courses is weak, then a redesign of those courses are potential next steps.

Learning and the new trends of skills and jobs. The assessment of learning outcomes, which has been prevalent in student affairs work for decades, is gaining more attention recently, but with a career, skills and job focus. This discourse really picked up a couple years ago – at least within Ontario – with the publication of a number of reports, including the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel Report (2016). This report called for work integrated learning to be a component of the educational experience of all secondary and post-secondary students. Similarly, ‘career readiness’ was sited by Academica Top Ten readers as the most important issue in Canadian higher education for 2019. Finally, HEQCO recently made the case to place a much greater focus on the teaching and assessment of skills within our post-secondary institutions.

Equity and Student Success. All of these different ways to understand, measure, and talk about student success continue to highlight the need to identify the lens used when discussing it. The equity lens is one that I know to be core to the values of our Student Affairs profession; however, we probably do not have a strong understanding of the goals and outcomes of all of our students in ways that reflect the increasingly diverse population on our campuses. From the student lens, we need to understand who is achieving their goals, and who is not. This is an impossible question to answer if the requisite data about demographics, identity, and race are not available. To discuss student success at the broad, campus population level without looking at the goals and outcomes of at-risk and under-represented groups, is no longer sufficient. Collecting good data is a challenge worthy of an article all on its own.

Values. With these varying and contrasting views, it is helpful to remember that strong, often personal values underpin each student success lens (Braxton, 2003). Conflict around the definition of student success I believe comes from the value-laden nature the various perspectives. For example, it could be easy to dismiss institutional retention rates as a valuable student success metric when personal values suggest more discourse should be from the student perspective. My personal values motivate me to find ways to see success expressed more commonly from the lens of the students who are most under-represented, but I respect all of the various goals and perspectives and hold them each as valuable for improving programs and services. Truthfully, most of my work still uses retention data because it is most widely available and well received at my institution.

While I have covered many elements of student success, I missed many more, such as student health and wellness, for example. Goals – of the student, post-secondary institution and the government – form the foundation of how I break down and understand student success. I am striving for a future where I can better understand and share data and stories about the degree to which students meet their desired higher education goals, whatever they may be – personal, social, educational or vocational.  I also hope for a future where our student affairs programs and services routinely collect the data that would allow us to respond to bold student success missions, such as the access and quality goals set out by HEQCO (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2017). The access goal challenges institutions to work towards improving the graduation rates of underrepresented students in higher education so that they are at least equal to the rest of the population. The quality goal challenges institutions to annually report on the learning outcomes and skills of all graduates. I believe student affairs units are naturally already working towards these goals, and I think we can get there. The year 2019 may be the perfect time to formally start working towards these goals.

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