Student Success – Are We Clear About What This Means?


In 2018, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accreditation body released a report suggesting "current discussions and measures of student success are based on a construct that does not represent students now enrolled in U.S. postsecondary education institutions." 

In particular, the HLC said the focus on completion too often ignores individual students' intent or educational goals. The current use of completion metrics and approaches often result in privileging certain types of learners, and do not adequately address the barriers or priorities of nontraditional students. This current approach also undervalues certain types of institutions and programs, such as community and technical colleges.

For many community and technical college students, completion means getting the skills and competencies they’ll need for the next steps, be it a career or continuing their education. Sometimes, success is simply being able to get to class every day (Nazerian, 2018).  In other words, success is like “scotch tape.” We call it that even though it has different “brands.”


 According to the HLC, a more flexible student success framework, with students at its center, would include measures of "attainment of learning outcomes, personal satisfaction and goal/intent attainment, job placement and career advancement, civic and life skills, social and economic well-being, and commitment to lifelong learning," 

Many institutions make impressive statements about the educational experiences they seek to provide. You can find such claims in various institutional documents and communications such as in mission statements, admissions materials, at commencement ceremonies, at trustee meetings. These proclamations are an important part of the “cultural language” of the institution that serves as a sort of moral compass that keeps us on the path toward the core values of our colleges (Jennings, et al., 2013).

These core values are tightly woven into the standards by which we measure our success in educating students. If our students lose themselves in “intellectual discovery” or become “men and women for others” to make a difference in the world, we will have done our job. For sure many of our students hope they will indeed graduate with these abilities. But our students are also aware of and influenced  by other perspectives on the college experience. And no perspective is more prominent than the one that defines college success as landing a good (i.e., high-paying) job or gaining admission to a top-ranked graduate or professional school.


With these understandable concerns vying for students’ attention, how well do the life aspirations expressed in our colleges’ mission statements and core values shape the way students define their own success? To address this question, Jennings and colleagues conducted a study of students’ definition of success over the four years of their college experience. They found, for example that academic achievement (e.g., getting good grades, declaring a major, planning for study abroad) was more important than academic engagement, such as developing a breath of knowledge, or a love of learning. More than 80 percent of the students defined success using one of these academic achievement themes, with “getting good grades” being the most common response.

The Jennings et al. study also found that social and residential life to be significant to students’ definition of success. This includes making new friends, maintaining relationships, participation in extracurricular activities. This category was most prominent in the first year (71%), and declined over the college experience, resting at 56% in year four.

Life management themes also were associated with students’ definitions of success.  Elements of life management included maintaining psychological and physical well-being, work-ethic issues (e.g., better time management, developing effective study skills), and balancing academics with one’s social or personal life. Defining success in terms of life management was relatively common (44–82 percent each year), but the peak was during year three (82%), and lowest in first two years.


Another category focused on academic engagement: expressing a desire to learn, to take interesting classes or explore new subject areas, or to engage in independent research. Jennings and colleagues were surprised that more students did not define success in these terms. Those who did (30–53 percent each year) mostly talked about wanting to learn—until the senior year, when students linked their definitions of success to independent research or honors projects.

So, why is it that for students, success is more related to getting good grades than being academically engaged? Jennings and colleagues suggest that to answer this question, we need to learn more about how they learned, what they learned, what challenges their ideas, or what really got their attention?

What are your thoughts or experiences regarding students’ concepts of success in college?

 By. Terry L. Mills, PhD


Fain, P.  (2018).  Accreditor on Defining Student Success. December 12, 2018. 

Inside Higher Education


Higher Learning Commission (2018).  Defining Student Success Data:

Recommendations for Changing the Conversation.


Jennings, N., Lovett, S., Cuba, L., Swingle, J., and Lindkvist, H. (2013)

What Would Make This A Successful Year For You: - How Students Define Success. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Spring vol. 99(2). Available online at:

Nazerian, T. (2018). How Should Colleges Approach Student Success When Different Definitions Abound? Available online at: