College student success: it‘s more than graduation rates

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ask most faculty, administrators, staff and students if they are interested in helping students succeed in college and the answer is likely to be a resounding yes. Ask them what exactly they mean by student success and the answer will probably be much more muddied.

“Student success is a term you see a lot in the literature – I counted thousands of references to it in peer-reviewed papers over the past 10 years – but it is something that has really defied description,” John M. Braxton, professor of education in the Higher Education Leadership and Policy Program of the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations, said.

To help provide that description, Braxton was commissioned by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative to write a report on student success and what must be done to promote it. He was one of five scholars selected through a competitive process to present their findings at that organization‘s fall conference in Washington, D.C. The cooperative is financed by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Braxton identified eight discrete domains that constitute student success: academic attainment, acquisition of general education, development of academic competence, development of cognitive skills and intellectual dispositions, occupational attainment, preparation for adulthood and citizenship, personal accomplishments, and personal development.

“One of the big conclusions that came out of this delineation is that student success is much more complex than just year-to-year perseverance or graduation rates,” Braxton said.

He does not, however, discount the importance of completing a degree.

“The first area, academic attainment, or graduation, is the portal to the rest of the measures of success,” Braxton said. “If you don‘t persist and you don‘t graduate, you aren‘t as likely to experience these other benefits. You are more likely to see the maximum return on your education if you graduate and persist year to year.”

Although much of a student‘s success relies upon his or her own efforts, Braxton argues that both faculty and policymakers play a critical role and that both need to shift their traditional emphasis from lectures and grades to helping students get the full benefits of their time at college.

“Six of the eight domains depend primarily on student course learning. This is where faculty come in – individual faculty members play a direct and highly significant role in fostering student success,” Braxton said. “This is particularly important in aspects of teaching that are distinct from lecturing. Faculty must be motivated to make professional choices to use pedagogically based tools, methods and approaches with their students that go beyond lecturing, and these all require effort, commitment and focus.”

Policymakers also have a role to play in fostering an environment that supports a more comprehensive approach to supporting students‘ success, particularly at public universities, Braxton said.

“State policymakers can help ensure that faculty are making the professional choices needed to best serve students by having clear performance expectations,” he said. “Some tools to do this include funding policies linked to student performance, state-funded faculty development seminars and workshops, academic program reviews and more.”

To read the full report and the other four reports presented at the fall NPEC symposium, go to

Domains of Student Success
Below are examples of each domain of student success Braxton identified.

Academic attainment – year-to-year persistence, graduation, academic learning

Acquisition of general education – acquisition of a general knowledge of arts and sciences, learning about significant cultures and the world, and knowledge of community and world problems

Development of academic competence – writing and speaking in a clear and effective manner, reading and mathematical skills, and meeting the requirements for a major

Development of cognitive skills and intellectual dispositions – critical thinking, problem solving skills, development of intellectual interests and intellectual tolerance

Occupational attainment – obtaining employment after graduation in the same field as one‘s major, experiencing job satisfaction

Preparation for adulthood and citizenship – how to present oneself and one‘s ideas in an acceptable manner, now to lead a group, knowledge of government

Personal accomplishments – extracurricular achievements, intercollegiate athletic competition

Personal development – development of interpersonal self esteem, development of personal identity, development of self-understanding

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Media contact: Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS

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