Guest blog – Definition Dilemmas: What is Student Success?

“Value” as in dollars and cents? Or “value” as related to merit and importance? Evaluating the value of a postsecondary degree is creating a lot of buzz in higher education circles. There is much debate about postsecondary graduation rates, workplace skills and employment as key performance measures of student success in postsecondary education. From the local current affairs TV program’s special week-long series titled “Dude, Where’s My Future?” which detailed the lack of jobs for postsecondary graduates and the under-preparedness of some students entering the workforce, to several articles in the Globe and Mail, postsecondary graduates’ preparedness for the workforce is a topic of conversation and the entire value of a postsecondary education seems to be in question.

The instrumental perspective holds that postsecondary institutions educate students with knowledge, skills and attitudes that will help students maximize their “return on investment” in the workforce. A recent CIBC report notes that students in specialized and professional fields like law, medicine and engineering – fields of study that lead to clear workforce career paths – realize the largest ROI on their postsecondary education. The liberal perspective, powerfully articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman in the 19th century and more recently by Max Blouw, chair of the Council of Ontario Universities, denotes that “the BA or BSc doesn’t necessarily prepare you for a specific job but it prepares you for a flexible approach to learning, to engagement with problems, to analyze and to be articulate in criticism and coalition building.”

The tension between these two perspectives is at the heart of defining student success. From an instrumental point of view, success is an outcome that results from students demonstrating sufficient content-specific knowledge and skill development as measured by course grades and progression through a postsecondary field of study, culminating in convocation and later employment.  A liberal point of view defines success as a process in which students learn about themselves and others; cultivate and express their curiosity; and develop habits of lifelong learning and engagement with their community. Student success as an outcome or student success as a process – policymakers’ definition of this key concept is crucial.

Two different studies in Ontario – one at Sheridan College, and the other a multi-institutional study, Supporting Student Success, have examined this concept of “student success.” Across the two studies, the researchers have invited 1000 stakeholders (students, staff, senior administrators, and faculty) to share their perspective and how they have come to define success.

“Student Success” as described by participants in both studies expands beyond outcomes like graduation rates and employability after graduation.  Although these outcomes are crucial components of success, they merely depict a slice of the journey that students embark on when they enter postsecondary education. In both studies, participants spoke about the importance of what happens in the process of success for students (e.g. making meaningful connections, feeling a sense of academic and social belonging, realizing one’s potential and finding the right program/institutional fit). Focusing on success purely as the culmination of a degree or employability after graduation ignores the development of the student and the experiences and connections that influence their personal and professional growth.

We acknowledge that measures such as retention and graduation are important aspects of student success, but do not believe these and other outcome-based indicators should be the sole means by which the province measures (and thus defines) student success. Student success as a process, one that includes and measures a variety of constructs, and one that accounts for diverse students’ experiences and needs, provides the public with a more holistic and comprehensive definition of success.

We began this blog by asking about value. We measure what we value. If we want students to see their postsecondary education as developing habits of mind valuable for a lifetime of learning and contributing in their workplace and community, we must measure outcomes consistent with defining student success as a process.  Creating and fostering a culture that supports a more expanded notion of student success within an institution can have a positive impact not only on the students themselves, but on the staff, faculty and administrators who work closely to support each student.

Clearly, the issue of defining and measuring student success is a hot topic as registration for the Nov. 22 Defining and Measuring Student Success: A Higher Education Policy Research Symposium is now full. But you can contribute to the conversation remotely as the event will be streamed live. Click on the symposium to learn more.

-Tricia A. Seifert, Joseph Henry and Diliana Peregrina-Kretz

Tricia A. Seifert is an assistant professor in the higher education program at OISE; Joseph Henry is associate dean of student success at Sheridan College; Diliana Peregrina-Kretz is a PhD student in the higher education program at OISE.

Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinion, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

2 replies on “Guest blog – Definition Dilemmas: What is Student Success?”

I refer to the statement – specialized and professional fields like law, medicine and engineering – fields of study that lead to clear workforce career paths. This is not the case now. Just ask the Law Student is looking for an articling position or hoping to join the roster of a Law Firm. Likewise ask the Med student is looking for an internship. It is NOT a linear path anymore. Most students pursue a postsecondary education to not only study in an area which interest them but ultimately to be gainfully employed. Developing a curious mind and cultivating meaningful connection are part of growing up and life. It is not the primary reason for the staggering cost and time for a post-secondary education. But who am I comment? You did the research. This is, however, my perspective.

I know both as a student leader back at the University of Waterloo and as a student life professional at the University of Toronto, the tremendous value of the broader student experience. Yes, attending university or college to graduate and obtain a quality career is important, but it is only part of the journey. A significant part of a students learning and time on campus is greatly enhanced through involvement and engagement. The value of an engaged leaner should be measured through the life long skills they acquire, e.g., how to solve a problem, make decisions, communicate with diverse backgrounds, collaborate on projects, work on teams, inspire others, and give back to their communities. Thank you for posting this excellent topic for continued discussion.

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