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?

Three Ways Higher Ed can Avoid IT ‘Lock-In’

In a recent Future Trends Forum discussion with Bryan Alexander, George Siemens expressed concern about lock-in: a situation in which technology investments become so integrated with the business practices of an institution that disentanglement becomes all but impossible. Where hyper-rationalized approaches to data-driven decision-making come together with inflexible technological ecosystems characterized by a lack of interoperability, what we end up with is a dystopian future in which colleges and universities are unable to change their investments.


Number Games: Data Literacy When You Need It

My wife’s coach one told her that “experience is what you get the moment after you needed it.”  Too often the same can be said for data literacy.  Colleges and universities looking to wisely invest in analytics to support the success of their students and to optimize operational efficiency are confronted with the daunting task of having to evaluate a growing number of options before selecting a products and approaches that are right for them.  What products and services are most likely to see the greatest returns on investment?  What approaches have other institutions taken that have already seen high rates of success?  On the one hand, institutions that are just now getting started with analytics have the great advantage of being able to look to many who have gone before and who are beginning to see promising results.  On the other hand, the analytics space is still immature and there is little long-term high-quality evidence to support the effectiveness of many products and interventions.

Institutions and vendors who have invested heavily in analytics have a vested interest in representing promising results (and they ARE promising!) in the best light possible.  This makes sense.  This is a good thing.  The marketing tactics that both institutions of higher education and educational technology vendors employ as they represent their results are typically honest and in good faith as they earnestly work in support of student success.  But the representation of information is always a rhetorical act.  Consequently, the ways in which results are presented too often obscure the actual impact of technologies and interventions.  The way that results are promoted can make it difficult for less mature institutions to adjudicate the quality of claims and make well-informed decisions about the products, services, and practices that will be best for them.

Perhaps the most common tactic that is used to make results appear more impressive than they are involves changing the scale used on the y-axis of bar and line charts.  A relatively small difference can famously be made to appear dramatic if the range is small enough.  But there are other common tactics that are not as easily spotted that are nonetheless just as important when it comes to evaluating the impact of interventions.  Here are three:

There is a difference between a percentage increase and an increase in percentage points.  For example, an increase in retention from 50% to 55% may be represented as either an increase of 5 points or 10%.  It is also important to note that the same number of points will translate into a different percentage increase depending on the starting rate.  For example, a 5-point increase from a retention rate of 25% represents an increase of 20%.  A 5-point increase from a starting retention rate of 75%, on the other hand, is only an increase of 7%.  Marketing literature will tend to choose metrics based on what sounds most impressive, even if it obscures the real impact.

A single data point does not equal a trend.  Context and history are important.  When a vendor or institution claims that an intervention saw a significant increase in retention/graduation in only a year, it is possible that such an increase was due to chance, an existing trend, or else was the result of other initiatives or shifts in student demographics.  For example, one college recently reported a 10% increase in its retention rate after only one year of using a student retention product.  Looking back at historical retention rates, however, one finds that the year prior to tool adoption marked a significant and uncharacteristic drop in retention, which means that any increase could just as easily have been due to chance or other factors.  In the same case, close inspection finds that the retention rate following tool adoption was still low from an historical perspective, and part of an emerging downward trend rather than the reverse.

It’s not the tool.  It’s the intervention. One will ofter hear vendors take credit for significant increases in retention / graduation rates, when there are actually other far more significant causal factors.  One school, for example, is praised for using a particular analytics system to double its graduation rates.  What tends not to be mentioned, however, is the fact that the same school also radically reduced its student : advisor ratio, centralized its administration, and engaged in additional significant programmatic changes that contributed to the school’s success over and above the impact that the analytics system might have made by itself.  The effective use of an analytics solution can definitely play a major role in facilitating efforts to increase retention and graduation rates.  If fact, all things being equal, it is reasonable to expect a 1 to 3 point increase in student retention as a result of using early alerts powered by predictive analytics.  Significant gains above this, however, are only possible as a result of significant cultural change, strategic policy decisions, and well-designed interventions.  It can be tempting for a vendor specially to at least implicitly take credit for more than is due, but it can be misleading and have the effect of obscuring the tireless efforts of institutions and people who are working to support their students.  More than this, overemphasizing products over institutional change can impede progress.  It can lead institutions to falsely believe that a product will do all the work, and encourage them to naively embark on analytics projects and initiatives without fully understanding the change in culture, policy, and practice to make them fully successful.