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What defines student success? by Dan Abrahamowicz

Dan Abrahamowicz

Excerpt from the Spring 2021 issue of The Extension

I read with interest the fall 2020 edition of the Wright State Magazine. Wright State’s eighth president, Sue Edwards, graces the cover in a great looking portrait and the contents include a number of interesting stories.

What was of particular interest to me though was the caption next to Dr. Edwards’ portrait, which read A Champion for the Students. This was the title of the article about Dr. Edwards and, I assumed, a declaration as to the priority of her presidency.

As it turns out, being a champion, according to the article, involves “leading the charge” in focusing on student success. As she assumes her presidency, Dr. Edwards is committed to an institutional culture that supports student success (Wright State…2020).

Student success is a laudable goal for a president and an institution of higher education, but the article is a little unclear as to the definition of student success. There is a paragraph that refers to helping keep students on track to graduation. From that I infer that graduation is the student result that Dr. Edwards is championing and that student success is defined by student graduations.

How you go to college is what matters, not where you go to college.

There is nothing wrong with this definition of student success. Everyone working in higher education wants students to persist through the collegiate process and graduate. Furthermore, graduations, completions, etc. are essential elements in Ohio to the arcane state subsidy formula. The more students complete coursework and graduate, the more money the state institution receives.

So, student success as graduations has a real instrumental value to a state institution. Student success means more money. But is graduation intrinsically the definition of a successful student? After all, the graduation ceremony is a commencement, the beginning of something. What defines student success after the beginning?

This speaks to the real purpose of higher education, its ultimate value to the students and their families. An article in the Gallup Business Journal (2014) asked the question “Is College Worth It?”. The answer in the article is yes, but new measures of success are needed. The article claimed that traditional measures of student success—degree attainment, employment, lifetime earnings, etc.—fall short of defining the value of college.

This is especially true as graduates struggle to find well-paying jobs while average tuition levels have risen nearly 250 percent in the past two decades. Students and families have coped with this by amassing student loan debt now surpassing $1 trillion, which is more than all credit card debt combined and is now proclaimed a national crisis. The article also asks what the ultimate outcome of a college education should be.

College, the article argued, prepares someone not just for graduation or that first job, but for many different jobs and experiences over a lifetime. Through its research, Gallup, for this article and in later research (Gallup-Purdue, 2014) with Purdue University of over 30,000 U.S. graduates, examined the long-term success of graduates as they pursued good jobs and better lives.

To make a long story less long, Gallup says its research shows that the ultimate outcome of higher education is about well-being, which in turn is critically dependent on career and workplace engagement. But this is not about high salaries or prestigious companies, it is about liking what you do, doing your best at it and being in an engaging workplace. Student success, therefore, is connected to well-being and to students figuring out what they like to do and what they do best.

What is it in the collegiate experience that contributes to this student success? The results of the Gallup-Purdue study found that where students went to college hardly mattered at all to their current level of well-being. The secret to success, according to the study is not “where you go to college but how you go to college.”

Critical elements include having encouraging and caring mentors and professors; having experiences and/or internships that provided application of classroom learning; and being involved in extracurricular activities and organizations. Further, students who felt supported during their time in college were far more likely to have an emotional attachment to their institutions; and those who feel such attachment also are thriving in well-being.

This, to me, is fascinating stuff. How you go to college is what matters, not where you go to college. Involvement, engagement, personal and emotional connection, student centeredness—can institutions be purposeful in building these elements into the college experience and into institutional culture? Those institutions that are good at it really do contribute to student success.

It is possible to survey alumni to determine whether graduates are experiencing well-being. Could be a nice project for someone at WSU. Student success can be counted as graduations, but seems to me that this sells short the real value of higher education and its impact on the lives of students and on society as a whole. Something about the collegiate experience makes lives better and ultimately better lives are the measure of student success.