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Excerpt from the Plenary Panel “Diverse Perspectives on Student Success”


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Margarita Benitez, The Education Trust

It’s a good thing we started [in Patrick Love’s remarks] with a definition that reflects the complexity and the need for individual accomplishment, because ultimately student success happens person by person. However, I’m going to focus on student success as an institutional commitment, partly because of my own involvement in the Access to Success [A2S] Initiative, but also because I have become convinced that the only way in which we are going to be able to impact many of those individuals we seek is through ambitious, aggressive, and large-scale initiatives that make this possibility accessible to the greatest number. This is why I could not resist the invitation to participate in the Access to Success Initiative, where state university systems, twenty of them across the country, were making this kind of a commitment and a concerted effort – a concerted effort, I believe, is indispensable – both on each campus and at the larger institutional level, at the system level.

The long term goals of this initiative have to do with cutting in half by 2015 the current gaps between college entry and college completion that separate low income and minority students from other students. That goal of course would cascade and reach, ultimately, individual students. But it’s also a goal of collective success in terms of state needs because it’s spelled out as resembling the state’s demographic makeup as reflected in the profile of the senior class graduating from high school. This refers to student success as a collective endeavor and part of the public good; it has to do with prosperity, it has to do with the collective well-being, and it has to do with civic values. The argument for student success can and should be coached in those terms: for those for whom justice and equity are not sufficient, for those for whom intellectual accomplishment and pleasure are unknown, unfamiliar, or unnecessary accomplishments.

Looking for the levers of student success in highly complicated state university systems implies lines of work for our initiative in the area of cost management – where we must put student success at the center – and which change the whole dynamic of determining the priorities and the most important activities. It has to take into account financial aid; although certainly federal funding for low income students is one of the most powerful propellers of equity and of access in higher education, percentage wise, it is smaller than the amount of institutional aid that universities give. Federal grants stand for 13% of all financial aid available in this country where institutional aid is 21%. That takes us to the realization and the reflection that we have to look within ourselves, and our own institutional practices, to ask ourselves whether our institutions are in fact putting students at the center, are in fact thinking of student success above and beyond other considerations.

The other lever of student success we are looking at is developmental education. So many students come to university under prepared, and so many of them find remedial or developmental education just a revolving door which often does not make enough difference to justify the investment that is made in it. This also means that students are using a lot of hard earned money in courses that are not really making a difference in their lives. One thing that we found in our initiative, and which was one of the motors that got it going, was that often people in decision making positions are blissfully unaware of this information. When we presented the CEOs of many of the systems participating in the initiative with the data about the Ws and Ds and Fs of students in the remedial courses, and how high those percentages were, the most candid among them acknowledged [not only] that they had no idea of this information, especially when it was desegregated, campus by campus, but also that they had never thought of asking, that they had never thought of looking [for it]. One of the most important exercises that all of us must do is to look within our own practices — within our own teaching practices, within our own administrative practices, within our own institutional practices — to figure out how many barriers of our own making are standing in the way of student success.

Now, how do these systems define student success? Because of the large number of students involved, they have to go back to a number of simple, perhaps overly simplistic indicators: retention and graduation rates. The fact of the matter is that this information is not as complete, is not as telling, as it could be, because oftentimes many students are not counted. Part of what we are trying to do in the Initiative is to count what we call the “missing students” – I’m referring to part-time students and I’m referring to transfer students which, as you know are not counted in IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems). IPEDS counts only first-time, full-time students, which means that graduation rates of transfer students are not counted in any of the counts that matter. And don’t let me get started on rankings, because rankings again, they turn their back on many of the most noteworthy and admirable efforts at student success underway at our universities and at many of your campuses.

Among the levers of student success that I mention [here] — cost management, financial aid, transfer, developmental education – certainly K-16 collaboration, collaboration with the schools is a responsibility that universities can not turn their back on.

[In respect to] where you are and where this initiative is, you are in the place where it makes most difference: in the classroom. Classroom understood of course in the broadest possible sense, including cyberspace, including labs, including research travel, etc. But ultimately you are not sufficient; the CEOs of these systems and I’m sure the leadership of many of your institutions are also committed to student success. What I would like to explore with you is how do we cross the gaps that exist in communication, in shared understanding, in a concerted effort towards your will towards student success and their will, and how do we work together to remove those barriers. I haven’t given you a definition except the obvious pieces that everybody knows about. What I’m interested in is how do we coordinate our efforts, how do we make this into the most powerful force in American higher education?