Higher Education is notorious for getting wrapped up in ideal images and relying solely on U.S. rankings to tell their story of impact and student success. Benchmarks, accreditation and how one institution compares to a sample of its peers has dominated our profession with our leadership and administration. We commonly can find ourselves tasked by administration with projects related to what makes us look the BEST, which may neglect our student learning and development work. Often these administrative-driven, external-serving metrics represent shining stars for colleges and universities, while what actually may be contributing to student success goes unmentioned or without further examination. Why aren’t we bragging about the things students are learning and how they develop while in college? Are we placing enough importance and resources behind understanding what may be contributing to student re-enrollment, academic success and graduation? All of these can add more to the definition of student success, which should be the definition of institutional success, am I right?
So how do we expand our definition of student success?
The deep driver of our work sometimes is in alignment with this quest to focus on student success, such that — when we have evidence of the connection of co-curricular learning and developmental experiences and how these lead to well-educated and socially responsible students— we jump to the front of the line and shout about how this may contribute to retention, etc. This kind of alignment between intended outcome and interventions helps add context to why our institutions can become a valuable choice for students.
However, our work can be in conflict with leadership priorities when they primarily focus on a benchmark or metric that doesn’t quite stand on its own. For example, the national rankings are not inclusive of telling the real story of how students grow and develop as a result of engaging on campus, whether that be student employment, internships, undergraduate research, joining a student organization, volunteering at the college radio station, and a host of other ways students are involved at our institutions. We cannot leave out the most compelling narrative in these rankings: our student stories. Better framing our student narratives, how are we talking about involvement and engagement contributing to students re-enrolling and graduating from our campuses? We cannot tell much of a story if we don’t know what the contributors are or their impact.
Furthermore, when we focus so much externally, we can lose focus on the rich, internal assets and opportunities at our institutions. Looking at student engagement and outcomes enables us the ability to learn a lot about the student experience and recommend policies and practices that may improve retention efforts. Connecting results using the same language and metrics of our leadership — such as retention or employment outcomes — can afford latitude in generating those results or composing that story differently than administration may have intended. As such, we need to keep pushing and nudging administration in order to move towards a more inclusive definition of student success in order to explore and more completely answer questions about student development and achievement.
Setting the Foundation
It is no secret that facilitating assessment and research planning in Student Affairs is time consuming and often exhausting, as illustrated above and via this blog platform. The Iceberg Illusion is something I often refer to in an effort to re-center myself with our work. This is especially necessary when assessment work is pursued with a very narrow definition of student success or encouraged to answer complex questions with just a single metric. This illustration demonstrates how a majority of the labor that goes into our work is often under the surface, where only a partial representation of the actual effort is seen by people.
Knowing the work required and how it can be received by others on campus, assessment and research planning can feel like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a steep hill, except that the SA assessment pro in our world is wearing roller skates, the boulder is square, and there is thick ice on the side of the hill.
So does this just mean that we should give up because the boulder will keep rolling downhill?
We (and others) should recognize part of the great value in this work are the failures and mistakes we make in which we learn the most valuable professional lessons. Our colleagues and leadership may only see the results of all this dedication, so it is our duty to advocate consistently. Our central mission is to work against all odds and ensure we tell our students’ stories. We need our institutional reports to reflect student stories, thus adding more inclusive information to any single metric when leadership discusses the context of student success. We also must advocate for the importance of understanding the skills students need for post-graduation success and what we can do to help facilitate those needs during their student journey on our campuses.
While it may be expected that our leadership only wants a single metric or benchmark without the accompaniment of student learning and development stories, we should not easily feel defeated or helpless to the situation. Just like Sisyphus, we should strive to keep pushing and doing what we can to re-focus efforts on that ever-important character in our storytelling: our students.
“Pushing” In Action
As a practical example, our campus currently has led an effort to understand career development experiences and its impact on career readiness learning outcomes such as critical thinking, civic engagement and intercultural competency. The assessment and research project was the first of its kind on our campus to go beyond perceptions of career readiness and embark on using learning assessments to understand how students are developing. Our goal is to couple this with First Destination Survey data to tell a more inclusive story of how students grow and develop in the realm of ‘career readiness’ and their overall post-graduation outcomes. However, some leadership in our institution only wanted to showcase how many students are employed or enrolled in graduate school up to 1 year after graduation without any other metrics. They have historically utilized this one metric to share the success of our institution’s ability to help student achieve ‘career readiness.’ This single metric does not fully tell the story of our institution’s impact on students’ learning and development in career readiness skills. It merely indicates what students may be doing after they graduate.
And…BAM… just like that it can feel like a sharp kick or punch in the kidneys when something like this happens! There goes the boulder coming right back at you and crossing our fingers we can safely break our fall. But, only if you let it affect you this way.
Instead, be an advocate for those students. In our case, our office has been publicly sharing the results of the connections between something like student employment and its positive influence on developing better critical thinking, civic engagement and intercultural competency skills. We now know more about this specific type of the student experience and how it relates to student learning and development. This information can help add context to the student success metrics that are currently being shared, as well as help aid in the capacity building of current efforts to better support student employees. Now, this just builds a stronger story for all. When faced with a similar challenge in simplifying or ignoring important aspects of student learning and development, you, the SA assessment pro, must keep to the mission for our students in the forefront. You should be ready to accept that sometimes you will get knocked down, but, like Sisyphus, you will get up and continue.
Sharing and being proud of institutional metrics around student success is important and should not be undermined because they make our institutions unique. While metrics and benchmarks are one piece of the institutional storytelling, recognize they are indeed a piece of a larger puzzle with much more to share. There should be a more healthy balance of what metrics are used to tell our institutional and student stories. The value of coupling peer benchmarks with co-curricular learning and development, both quantitative and qualitative, only makes our stories stronger and more accurately represents the student experience, ultimately making our institutions the BEST for future students.
How are you coupling metrics and benchmarks with student stories? Is your campus moving towards a more inclusive definition of student success?
Renee Delgado-Riley, University of Oregon