The Trouble with ‘Student Success’

I’m increasingly troubled by ‘student success,’ and am even somewhat inclined to stop using the term entirely.

The trouble with ‘student success,’ it seems to me, is that it actually has very little to do with people. It’s not about humans, but rather about a set of conditions required for humans to successfully fill a particular role: that of a student.

So, what is a student?

A student (within the context of higher education, and as the term is employed within student success literature) is someone who is admitted to an institution of higher education, is at least minimally retained by that institution (many colleges and universities require at least 60 non-transferred credit hours in order to grant a degree), and graduate with some kind of credential (at least an Associate’s degree, but preferably a Bachelor’s). The student is the product of higher education. It is the task of colleges and universities to convert non-students into students (through the admissions process), only to convert them into a better kinds of non-students (through the graduation process). The whole thing is not entirely different from that religious process whereby an individual must first be converted from an a-sinner (someone who doesn’t grasp what sin is) into a sinner (they need to learn what sin is, and that they have committed it) in order to be transformed into a non-sinner through a process of redemption.

The language of ‘student success’ assumes that ‘being a student’ is an unmitigated good. But being a student is not a good in itself. The good of being a student is a direct consequence of the fact that being a student is requisite for attaining other higher goods. Having been a successful student is necessary in order to become a good worker. From the perspective of the individual, having been a successful student translates into being able to get a better job and earn a higher salary. From the perspective of a nation, a well-educated populace translates into an ability to meet labor demands in the service of economic growth. If this is the end of being a student, then, shouldn’t we talk about ‘Worker Success’? Replacing ‘student-‘ with ‘worker-‘ would retain every feature of ‘student success,’ but with the advantage of acknowledging that a post-secondary degree is not an end in itself, but is rather in the service of something greater. It would be more honest. It might also have the effect of increasing graduation rates by extending the horizon of students beyond the shoreline of their college experience and out toward the open sea of what will become something between a job and a vocation.

But I find the idea of ‘worker success’ still troubling in the same way as ‘student success.’ As with ‘student success,’ ‘worker success’ speaks to a role that humans occupy. It refers to something that a person does, rather than what a person is. As with being a successful student, being a successful worker implied having satisfactorily met the demands of a particular role, a set of criteria that come from outside of you, and that it is incumbant upon you to achieve. A successful student is someone who is admitted, retained, and graduates and so it is unsurprising that these are the measures against which colleges and universities are evaluated. A successful institution is one that creates successful students. Pressure is increasingly being put on institutions to ensure that students find success in career, but this is far more difficult to track (great minds are working on it). A successful worker is one who earns a high-paying job (high-salary serving as a proxy for the amount of value that a particular individual contributes to the overall economy).

What if we were to shift the way that we think about student success, away from focusing on conditional and instrumental goods, and instead toward goods that are unconditional and intrinsic? What if we viewed student success, not as an end in itself, but rather as something that may or may not help human beings contract their full potential as human beings? Would it mean eliminating higher education as it is today? I don’t think so. I’m not a utopian. I readily understand the historical, social, cultural, and material conditions that make school and work important. To the contrary, shifting out perspective toward what makes us human may in fact serve to underline the importance of an undergraduate education, and even of that piece of paper they call a degree. To the extent that an undergraduate education exposes minds to a world of knowledge, at the same time as it provides them with an opportunity to earn a good wage means that they are freed from the conditions of bare life (i.e. living paycheck to paycheck) and can commit their energies to higher order pursuits. Considered in this way, the importance of eliminating achievement gaps on the basis of race. ethnicity, gender, income, etc is also increased. For these groups who have been traditionally underserved by higher education, what is at stake in NOT having a post-secondary credential is not just a wage, but also perhaps their potential as human beings. At the same time as it make higher education more important, considering the student journey from the perspective of human success also opens up legitimate alternative pathways to formal education through which it is also possible to flourish. Higher education might be a way, but it might not be the way. And that should be okay.

I don’t know what this shift in perspective would mean for evaluating institutions. As long as colleges and universities are aimed at producing student-graduates, their reason for being is to solve a tactical problem — “how do we admit and graduate more students” — and they can be evaluated empirically and quantitatively by the extent to which they have solved the problem. The minute that colleges and universities start to reconceive their mission, not in terms of students, but in terms of humans, their success becomes far more difficult to measure, because the success of students-as-humans is difficult to measure. By thinking of education as a way of serving humans as opposed to serving students, our task becomes far more important, and also far more challenging.

But since when were the Good and the Easy the same thing?

Also published on Medium.