How should we measure student success?

There is little consensus among Ontario’s stakeholders on what constitutes ‘student success’. Should institutions focus mainly on high completion rates, ensuring that students are successful in attaining their degrees? Or should students be encouraged to engage in a wide range of campus activities beyond their academics to develop well-rounded individuals?

Should government work with institutions to produce graduates that meet labour market needs, ensuring that students can acquire jobs in their fields? Or should students be encouraged to pursue what interests them, embarking on post-secondary education as a means of self-discovery?

These are just some of the questions raised at a higher education research symposium hosted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, or OISE, University of Toronto, at an event on post-secondary education in Ontario – Canada’s most populous province – late last year.

It brought together a range of stakeholders from universities, colleges and the provincial government to consider how researchers should define and measure student success. Each speaker presented a different outlook on whether student success means degree completion, engagement on campus, relevant employment, personal fulfilment or increased salaries.

The event ended with working groups to facilitate research collaboration across sectors and chart a course for holistic student success.

Earnings vs social development

The research shows that attending post-secondary education in Canada is still a guaranteed investment that will increase employment earnings.

The 2011 National Household Survey indicates that the salaries of college (vocational) graduates are 61% higher than their counterparts who only hold a high school diploma. These findings were presented by Trent University’s Professor Torben Drewes, whose multi-year research provides strong impetus for individuals to attend post-secondary education.

Despite the allure of increased earnings, the student support group was quick to critique a solely monetary understanding of success.

Professor Tony Chambers, who developed OISE’s Centre for the Study of Students in Post-secondary Education, pointed out that post-secondary education offers individuals and communities numerous social benefits like decreased crime rates and increased civic engagement.

Employment vs engagement

For Ontario’s college sector, which has traditionally focused on vocational or applied education, notions of success are often linked to student employment. College programming is designed with employers in mind and industry stakeholders provide information on both their employment needs and satisfaction with recent graduates.

Adrienne Galway, special advisor to the president of George Brown College, presented at the research symposium on her institution’s key performance indicators. She used these provincial assessment indicators to show that high employment and satisfaction rates are possible when multiple interests are considered in programme design.

While there is definitely a need to transition students efficiently into the workforce, there is an understanding across Canadian institutions that degree completion and student success more broadly cannot be realised without engaging students in all aspects of campus life.

Toward this end Chris Conway, director of institutional research and planning at Queen’s University, provided an analysis of the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE.

NSSE is used broadly to assess undergraduate student behaviours and institutional practices, such as participation in extra-curricular activities, face-time with professors or experiences in residence life.

Complex measurements

As Conway was quick to point out, measuring an abstract concept like student success is complex and needs to be done with precision.

The above approaches tend to fall on opposing sides of a measurement-complexity spectrum. Those that offer effective measurement tools often simplify student success into one concept like increased earning or employment. However, more nuanced notions of success such as engagement or social development are incredibly difficult to assess.

What several researchers called for in response were multi-point research studies that consider numerous indicators like NSSE, key performance indicators and others to give a holistic picture of student success in the province.

Most importantly, as student success officers from around the province pointed out, there is a need to include students in these processes. Student participation may hold the key to identifying and measuring successful outcomes in post-secondary education.

* Presentation slides and a video of speakers is available here.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.