There are many conversations happening around my campus about “student success.”  As part of an initiative with some funding from our university system (for now), there is an effort in place to implement and use the Student Success Collaborative from EAB. This is a “. . . platform that combines technology, research, and predictive analytics to help four-year institutions positively inflect outcomes with at-risk and off-path students.”

The implementation has hit a few bumps. Some faculty are asking about increased workload and about whether data will be used for evaluating them. Other faculty want to know if students will be informed about the data gathering or have the ability to opt out of some of the many ways the system can gather, share, store, and manipulate data.

The analytics functionality of these products can help on learn more about patterns or pathways that might indicate a specific type of academic success. Students who take courses in a certain order tend to persist (especially in the sciences).  That could be helpful to know. Information about challenges a student is facing could be shared more easily with the specific teams on campus tasked with providing support for students at risk. That could be very helpful.

But I will admit to being a bit of a skeptic about these commercial predictive data analysis products. It’s true that my core identity as a librarian makes me think a lot about privacy. I wonder about “tracking.” Mostly I have begun to realize that most of this comes down to a desire I have to back up so that we, as a campus community, agree about what we mean by student success.

This past week we were fortunate to host Sara Goldrick-Rab on campus. Her talk was provocative and challenging. And some of us (including some amazing students) are beginning to ask ourselves some hard questions. Do the data analytics tell us if a student has enough to eat or a place to sleep? It might tell us that a student is missing class and MAYBE an advisor could be able to find out that the student is working the late shift or has responsibilities at home, or doesn’t have anywhere to sleep safely. But we’ll only know that if the product is informed by real human outreach, communication, and concern.

I am NOT suggesting that those things are in short supply on my campus. That is far from the truth for many of our faculty, student affairs staff, and administration.

And – does success mean we hope our students have been fundamentally changed in ways that go beyond the academic?  Of course it does. We talk about civic engagement, service, and critical thinking all the time. My campus has a really cool set of College-Wide Learning Outcomes that are becoming infused in the student experience and, yes, we are working on ways to measure and assess them.

As a library administrator, I have had the pleasure of hiring a colleague whose experiences in the library and on campus helped them discover the kind of library worker they want to be. And that has sometimes meant they needed to leave to be that librarian. Despite the losses, these felt like great successes to me. The people who leave because they have not succeeded (and by extension, I have not) are the ones who keep me up at night. So maybe sometimes, when students leave it’s because they have been successful. I know that, more often than not, that isn’t the reason.

I want our conversations about student success to continue to grow and to include attention to concern for students sense of belonging, for our interest in how they are thinking about their education and experiences on campus, on helping them think about who they are and who they are becoming. I believe that these things are as important as the GPA that will carry them through to graduation.

How do you define student success? How are you talking about in your school, on your campus, or with your students?

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3 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Succeed at Student Success?”

  1. Student success hinges on how our campus defines ‘success’ and how we identify what it looks like it.
    “Our campus” means students must have a loud voice in the process from the beginning. Analytics can, and should be driven by humans and not passed of as a ‘just an algorithm’

  2. Your site is looking fabulous! Wonderful questions that you raise with this post. As a scientist who highly values data, it is important to remember the limitations of what any dataset can tell us; and when it comes to human behavior it can be HIGHLY LIMITED and fraught with many possible misinterpretations. Instead of EAB, what if we spent all that money to increase the likelihood that every student would have face-to-face conversations (or maybe video conferences or texts or whatever online communications that are not surveilled) with caring, thoughtful, resourceful humans who simply and genuinely ask them – how are you doing? what do you need?

    1. Thanks, Karen! I agree with you 100%. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t value data. I use it all the time to help with decision-making in the library. I have become, over time, more critical in thinking about how we use data, how quickly we jump on the “best practice” bandwagon, and how much we need to ask those very questions you pose at the end of your comments. And we should ask our students and one another, “How are you doing? What do you need? How can I help?”

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