Before I studied student success, I studied evolutionary biology. I regularly get asked how the two things relate, and I often find myself applying evolutionary thinking to student success challenges. Lineages of species divide over time and give rise to descendants that resemble their forebearers but are also distinct in unique ways. To my eyes, the evolution of the major student success schools of thought has happened in the same way.
As these “lineages” have evolved, so have the metrics we use to find opportunities and track progress. As you’ll see below, these metrics have become very complex over the span of just a few years. We are also in a moment of extreme transition as we emerge from the pandemic and struggle to understand its ripple effects. Not coincidently, EAB has seen a recent uptick in requests for help building dashboards and tracking large amounts of student success data.
As we think about where student success is headed in the next decade, it’s useful to look back at where we’ve been. In this post, I’ll review how our understanding of student success (and how to measure it) has evolved by exploring the four big “lineages” of student success best practice.
Four "lineages" of student success best practice
Lineage A: Student engagement
The oldest school of thought emerged during the 1970s from the work of early student success researchers such as Vincent Tinto. These researchers pioneered and popularized the idea that retention is driven by “student engagement.” In this model, attrition results from a lack of attachment to a college, while students who feel engaged and part of the community are more likely to return.
- First-year retention
Student engagement efforts started organizing under the umbrella of a “first-year experience” during the 1990s and early 2000s. Advocates reasoned that engagement efforts should be focused on incoming students as they form their first impressions and set their course of study. They also reasoned that they could reduce attrition by catching and helping students struggling with the difficult transition to college. Doing this right would result in more students returning for a second year, thus first-year retention became the first metric widely used to track student success.
Lineage B: Degree planning
Even as first-year experience programs grew in popularity from 2000 to 2010, leaders at open-access and two-year institutions began advocating for expanding focus beyond the first year. They reasoned that attrition happens across the entire student journey, driven by frustration with inconsistent course offerings, murky academic requirements, and a lack of long-term degree planning. The response became known as “The Completion Agenda,” a broad set of reforms focused on organizing requirements into standard degree plans and ensuring that students could enroll for these courses in a timely manner. Schools that implemented these reforms measured their success via improved graduation rates and degree output.
- Graduation rates
- Degree output
- Time to degree
- Excess credits
By the mid-2010s, the Completion Agenda had given rise to the Guided Pathways movement. As the name implies, Guided Pathways endeavors to guide students on structured pathways matched to their individual education goals. By constructively limiting choice, Guided Pathways reduces complexity and keeps students on track, improving their odds of completion. Success is measured by shortening time to degree and reducing excess credits.
Lineage C: Next-generation advising
First-year experience programs precipitated a build-out of professional advising staff assigned to first-year and undeclared students. As they worked closely with students, advisors could see that attrition was often driven by academic, financial, and personal setbacks, not simply a lack of engagement. In response, they began investing in early alert systems that empowered them to reach out directly to struggling students rather than passively waiting and hoping that they would find help on their own. Success leaders began to rely on metrics like support utilization and issue resolution as leading indicators of retention.
- Support utilization
- Issue resolution
- Advising engagement
- Persistence rates
- Next-term registration
From 2010 onward, advising offices increasingly became a catchall for addressing a wide range of student needs, and attrition became understood as a failure to meet these needs. This gave rise to holistic advising practices that addressed academic, financial, and personal needs all at once. Holistic advisors started using technology to stay in close contact with their caseloads and provide support that is not dissimilar from social work. Success started being tracked via advising engagement and measured through the persistence rates of specific cohorts of students.
At the same time, proactive outreach efforts began to zero in on one alert in particular: students who had not yet registered for the next term. Next-term registration offered advising offices a new metric that directly tracked student persistence in real-time and could be applied to all students, not just first-years. Attrition was seen as driven by student inaction, and advisors began launching focused outreach campaigns targeted at unregistered students with the goal of removing their administrative and financial barriers and securing registration. EAB named these practices “Student Success Management” for their resemblance to enrollment management strategies.
Lineage D: Equity gaps
The 1970s research into student engagement gave rise to another important lineage that now defines so much of our student success work in 2023. As early as the 1980s, student success leaders were documenting equity gaps in college access and completion. Many schools responded by standing up underrepresented minority programs, as they were known at the time, to provide support and community tailored to a student’s identify and background.
- Disaggregated data for all the metrics an institution tracks
By the mid-2010s, affinity programs had morphed into a broader push for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. Leaders saw their student bodies becoming increasingly more diverse and understood that scattered programming was not enough to level the uphill climb that underrepresented students felt at their institutions. Reformers concentrated their efforts on structures and policies known to have a disproportionate impact on students from minoritized and lower-income backgrounds, such as developmental education. These efforts became part of the larger antiracism moment that emerged in 2020 from the widespread response to the death of George Floyd and rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The DEI lineage stands out from the others in that it didn’t introduce new success metrics into the conversation. Rather, this school of thought asks leaders to disaggregate the metrics advanced by other lineages to understand how success varies across racial, gender, income, and first-generational lines and identify opportunities for improvement.
Speculating on emerging lineages
Evolution never stops, in fact it usually accelerates when the underlying environment is in flux and species need to change to keep up. The ripple effects of the pandemic on higher education will foster new lineages of thought around student success and add to what is already a complex ecosystem of ideas. There are four emerging lineages that we are monitoring:
1. Student mental health
The post-pandemic student mental health crisis merely accelerates a trend we have observed for a decade. Soon, measuring student success could include metrics related to mental and emotional well-being.
2. Developmental education
K-12 learning also took a big hit during the pandemic, and we will be processing the after-effects for years. Indeed, we are already seeing an uptick in students entering college with less preparation than we would have expected just a few years ago. More students will need to engage with developmental education, and the pass rates in these courses could become important early indictors of success.
3. Workforce development
Higher education faces sharp criticisms of its workforce relevance at the exact same time as employers have become more desperate for trained workers. In this environment, schools that can educate and place workers into highly skilled jobs—and track this success—will be able to use these metrics to tell a different kind of student success story.
4. Lifelong up-skilling
Workers need to be continuously up-skilled in a fast-changing knowledge economy. Schools that create lifelong affinity will often be the first place their alumni turn to when they need more education to take the next step in their careers. For these institutions, success could become measured by metrics tracking a student’s willingness to “renew their contract” and continue their education with their alma mater.
Takeaway: Defining your strategy and metrics
Needless to say, the quantification of “student success” has become very complex. Most of this complexity has been introduced in just the last ten years, with more change likely to come, leaving many strategists struggling to set a course for their institutions.
Student success doesn’t need to mean the same thing to all schools, and it probably shouldn’t. Your strategy should be tailored to the specific needs of your students, your finances, and the mission of your institution. That necessarily means that you will need to emphasize some of these schools of thought over others as you develop a strategy customized to your own circumstances and students.
Whatever direction you take, you must define and track the metrics that matter for your chosen strategy. Picking the metrics is the easy part. The bulk of the challenge comes from assembling the underlying data from multiple sources, designing dashboards to easily parse and review these metrics, and developing processes for regular review and revision to strategy.
Our students are changing. Schools that work hard now to understand these changes and seek areas for improvement will find themselves with a leg up on their competitors in the difficult years that lie ahead.
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