What Is Student Success? New Insight Into a Complex Question

By Brian Soika

September 1, 2021

Students in cap and gown listen to a speech at a commencement ceremony. Graduation rates are one example of student success.

Master’s students at the 2019 USC Rossier commencement ceremony.

Student success is a measure of student engagement and positive outcomes. In higher education, the term typically refers to first-generation and most historically marginalized students. These groups drop out at higher rates and have greater need for institutional support. 

However, pinpointing a universal definition of student success can be tricky. 

Student needs are complex. Plus, the definition can vary depending on who’s measuring it. Institutions may focus on metrics related to graduation rates. Researchers and students on the other hand might emphasize issues pertinent to the college experience. 

Regardless of who is measuring, there are common, top-level metrics that higher education professionals generally track.

Common Student Success Metrics

  • Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to be successful. In higher education, students with higher levels of self-efficacy are typically more prepared to meet the demands of rigorous coursework.
  • Academic achievement refers to how students meet or exceed expectations in their coursework as they progress towards completing their degree. 
  • Completion refers to students who finish their degree within six years after entering postsecondary education for the first time. 
  • Retention is the rate of return among students from year to year. 
  • Persistence is a measure of student progress from one benchmark to the next, e.g., a student who enrolls in fall and persists to spring semester. 

Individually, these metrics yield incomplete insights. Rather, measuring success requires a nuanced view of how they affect each other. 

How Can Institutions Improve Student Success?

Higher education institutions generally acknowledge that student success could be improved, and many have programs and services to address the issue. 

But as findings from the Pullias Center in Higher Education’s Promoting At-Promise Student Success (PASS) Project note, single interventions such as those offered only in the first year of postsecondary education are often ineffective. 

In a 2019 report for the American Council on Education, Pullias Director Adrianna Kezar, PhD writes that institutions need to create “a diverse student success infrastructure that supports long-term cultural change.”

To address this problem, The PASS Project established a six-year study of a comprehensive college transition program focused on low-income, first-generation and racially minoritized students. 

Pullias describes the project as creating a culture of “ecological validation” that helped students feel validated as learners.

A More Holistic Approach

In addition to traditional metrics used to measure student success, qualitative factors can also be revealing.

The PASS Project examined psychosocial outcomes such as mattering, or the extent to which students perceive themselves to be valued; belonging, or the extent to which students feel connected to a group such as their peers or the campus community; and social self-efficacy, or students’ confidence in successfully navigating social interactions.

These outcomes positively impacted GPA and persistence in enrollment, according to the study.

The Effects of Career Preparation

A lack of preparation for a post-graduate career can have negative effects on marginalized students, especially women of color

Career preparation can also impact student confidence. Findings from the PASS Project show that major and career programming improved self-efficacy, which is associated with persistence. 

Some participants in the study also chose majors in which they are typically underrepresented, such as STEM.