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What success means to your students, in their own words

February 8, 2017

If you are reading this, you are probably responsible in some way for student success at your institution. But when was the last time you asked a student what success meant to them?

EAB’s Student Success Collaborative researchers went directly to over 200 students and asked how they define success. Their answers surprised, delighted, and moved us—and helped us focus our research and development agenda for the upcoming year. For students, success consists not just of good grades and steady progress toward graduation, but a holistic sense of fulfillment. They want to become strong candidates for careers in their chosen fields, emerge as competent and trustworthy adults, look back on their time without regrets, and make their mentors and family members proud.

Here, in their own words, is what success means to today’s university students:

Cultivating grit

One of the biggest barriers students impose on themselves is believing they’re not cut out for college. Reversing this self-defeating attitude and instead training students to see early setbacks as challenges to overcome, rather than proof of inferiority, is key to cultivating grit and a growth mindset.

“Things just don’t come easy for me. I have to really study hard and put a lot of effort into things. But, I mean, it’s made me like a really determined person. You know, I know what I want, and it doesn’t matter if it’s going to come easy or not. I’m going to get it. I think success is available to anyone. I don’t think it’s only available to those who are smart or those who are gifted, those who are rich, nothing like that. It’s what you’re determined to do.“

Striking a balance

While administrators tend to focus on poor academic performance as a cause of attrition, academic burnout can also contribute to students dropping out. For many students, the key to achieving success is striking a healthy balance between academic effort and the other areas of life.

“You can still be very successful and you can still be very driven, but you need to approach it thinking that everything is not going to get done all at once and that you are going to need to make time and relax and socialize, and you are going to need to sometimes put in more effort than you need and have less sleep, but it will all work out eventually.“

“I’ve kind of put the library over the gym because there’s no point in having a six-pack and a big chest and not being able to pass my classes. I got to get my degree.”

Nurturing curiosity

Of course, completing college means fulfilling a set of degree requirements. However, students also want to see beyond the horizon of requirements and seek out enriching experiences for themselves. We spoke to one student who defines her own success as a genuine love for learning:

“My interest in research just kind of came to fruition throughout my time here. I have always been a writer…and so I do research in various formats, whether it’s interviewing people or reading books, and I just, I don’t know, I found that, I guess through my college experience, my teachers have really cultivated an eagerness to learn outside of the classroom. And so that’s what I guess I would measure my student success in, is that I have a desire to learn things, not just whatever I’m told I need to learn, but that I’m eager to learn other things and I’m curious and inquisitive.“

Earning the respect of others

No student is an island. In fact, behavioral economic theories tell us that students, like most people, have a great desire to be seen positively by others. In our interviews, many students told us that their gaining or maintaining positive reputations kept them motivated, and was commonly cited as a measure of success.

“I failed a class. I was extremely embarrassed. What led to that was me and my time management skills and not being serious about the course and how I could utilize it in my career. I was really nonchalant about everything, “Oh, I’ll get it done…” And I didn’t come to that realization until after the fact. I want to be someone that’s responsible and that can be relied upon, and I don’t want to be someone that’s, like, finicky and flaky.“

“One of my favorite teachers would be my chemistry teacher from sophomore year. I wasn’t really doing that well in the beginning, but I went to her office hours and I realized that she actually cared about my grade. She’s like, ‘I want you to do well in this class,’ as well, not just for her own benefit but to see me do well. I appreciated that. It made me feel like she wasn’t just a teacher. She made me feel welcome; she made me feel like, ‘Okay, I’m not by myself. I’m not the only person who wants me to succeed here.’”

Finding purpose and fulfillment

Many higher education leaders are working to ensure career outcomes for savvy students who want a return on their college investment. However, the following students remind us that their goals in life include another dimension—beyond well-paying jobs, they seek purpose by serving others.

“I just had to come to the realization that I wasn’t always going to get a trophy for working hard. You know, that’s not how the real world works. And I had to learn how to find gratification in other things, whether that is, you know—someone that I mentored through a class or, you know, something that they were working toward, you know, did well or accomplished their goal that they were working on, and just really had to sit back and kind of learn how to reprogram myself from having tangible things of success to the intangible things and being satisfied with the things that weren’t tangible.“

“I already feel like my years here have had purpose. They’ve made me a better person, kind of refocused what I want to take the rest of my life… And, I mean, it’s been happy.“

“What have I learned? Did I make an impact to the community? Have I helped someone?”

More on student success

The adage “it takes a village” is often applied to challenging but worthy missions, and no initiative on your campus is more important than ensuring that students succeed. Read these representative results from EAB members to learn how diverse stakeholders are making an impact.

American higher education has enjoyed a multidecade-long enrollment expansion that may soon come to an end. The recommendations in this report aim to help you and your leadership team reshape your student success strategy in preparation for the anticipated enrollment downturn of the 2020s.

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