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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


Patrick Love, Pace University

When I was appointed assistant provost at Pace University in 2005, there was no additional phrase appended to my title. I was just an associate provost. Then the president introduced me at a faculty event, where he referred to me as the associate provost for retention. And I immediately realized that if I was going to have something appended to my title, it would be something more appropriate than that. When I first brought it up to my boss, the provost, he asked what was wrong with retention as part of my title, since that was one of the core tasks of my job. Or, as he said, “That’s what we hired you for.”

I explained to him that there was good retention, bad retention, bad attrition, and good attrition. One example of bad retention was the young woman who wrote long, articulate, detailed, horrible things on blogs about her experience at Pace University that I had discovered during my research when I was interviewing at Pace University. The only reason she remained enrolled was that she was on scholarship and her parents would not allow her to transfer. I explained to the provost that it would be in our best interest to pay off the scholarship and allow her to leave because she was killing us in our recruitment efforts. On the other hand, an example of good attrition is when a student discovers a passion for a subject that we do not offer as a major. Helping that student find a more appropriate institution is an example of student success. When we settled on student success as the appendage to my title, he asked me to produce a definition of student success and to have it vetted by the community. Here is what I, and subsequently we, produced:

A student succeeds when she or he constructs a vision of her or his future, charts possible paths to that future, and takes steps along that path. To create such a vision students must recognize both the need to create their own future and their active role in that process. Students need to be or become aware, conscious, and intentional in their journey. Overall, student success is about learning and learning is about discovering, dreaming, creating, and achieving.

  • Student success is about discovery: discovering who they are, what they believe, what is important to them, what they know, what their place is in a diverse and complex world, what obstacles exist for them, how to learn in and out of the classroom, and how their prior learning and experience contribute to who they are today.
  • Student success is about dreams: dreaming about who they wish to be, what they wish to learn, what they wish to experience, what they hope to major in, what they hope to achieve and what they hope to pursue as a vocation, and finally, what they hope to contribute to the world.
  • Student success is about creation: taking advantages of opportunities for growth, learning, and development, creating possibilities and paths to their future, constructing learning experiences, choosing actions to take, taking risks in their choices and joining diverse others in discovering, dreaming, creating, and ultimately, learning.
  • Finally, student success is about achievement: accomplishing their goals, experiencing intellectual cognitive and psychosocial development, experiencing tangible results of their work, including completing their degree requirements and obtaining employment or being admitted to graduate school.

We sought a definition that integrated the quantitative/qualitative divide that respected the affective component of success as well as the concrete measurable components. I know, we all know, that I will be judged by first and second year retention rates and sixth year graduation rates. In this definition, we wanted to keep alive the very complex elements of learning, growth, and success, in the face of the drive to measure and calculate those elements that are measurable.

Just two days ago, I came upon a student who may indeed graduate but may not fit this definition of student success. I sent an email message to all students who had not yet registered for the spring semester, but who were eligible to return. I received this message from this young man.

“Dear Dr. Love, It is a blessing that this email was distributed, as I was completely unaware of registration deadlines. Thank you again. To be honest, I am a little lost, as to which classes I am to take for the remainder of my senior year.” [Emphasis added.]

This is a student on the cusp of graduation, but I find myself asking: Is this a self-aware student? Is this student making active choices or someone passively accumulating credits? Is this a polite student – it is a polite student, hence the nicely worded message — who has managed to drift through Pace University virtually unnoticed and disconnected. These are the kind of questions that rumble around in my head in meetings where my fellow administrators are discussing financial aid formulas that will maximize retention rates. These are also the kinds of conversations I have with my staff as we plan programs to address the student experience, such as: how does our freshman seminar encourage autonomy, self-directedness, self awareness, goal setting, educational planning, and recognition of learning styles? How is this exhibited in our advising practice? It is my belief that we need to keep the definition of student success broad and complex as we endeavor to measure our success in promoting it.