About the Student Success Question Set

Community colleges play a vital role in U.S. higher education, enrolling nearly one-third of students in degree-granting institutions each year (Dougherty et al., 2017). In recent years, community colleges have faced increasing pressure to improve student outcomes (Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, 2017; Bailey, 2016). This emphasis on student success has been driven by a combination of factors, including rapid changes in student demographics, concerns about persistent inequities in educational attainment and achievement, changing economic and workforce needs, reduced funding for public higher education, and general concerns about educational quality (Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, 2017; Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2012; Kinzie & Kuh, 2016).

To enhance student outcomes, community colleges must develop, apply, and measure progress against a clear definition of student success. Myriad definitions exist that include a wide range of concerns, from graduation and completion to persistence and retention, student engagement, and equity and diversity, among others (Astin, 1977, 1984, 1985, 1993; Barefoot, 2008; Hurtado et al., 2012; Kuh et al., 2010; Museus, 2013; Museus & Quaye, 2009; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005; Rendón & Munoz, 2011; Tinto, 1993; Tinto & Pusser, 2006). While many community college leaders conceptualize student success in terms of degree and certification completion rates, greater demands for accountability across a variety of metrics have led many leaders to take a more holistic view of student success (Jenkins & Fink, 2016). For example, nearly all community colleges prioritize improving the outcomes of historically underserved students (Rodriguez, 2015). Further, in response to employers’ observations about skills gaps among college graduates (Carnevale et al., 2012; Carnevale et al., 2011; Economist Intelligence Unit, 2014), many community college leaders have progressively turned their attention to assessing labor market outcomes and better preparing students for the workforce (Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, 2017). Some community colleges have begun to track transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment rates more systematically (Jenkins & Fink, 2016). In short, many community colleges have come to define student success not only by what students achieve during college, but also afterwards. As the Aspen Institute (2017) notes, “Exceptional community colleges align programs with good post-graduation opportunities, ensure that students have the broad and specific skills they will need after graduating, regularly check to make sure that the intended student outcomes are in fact achieved after graduation, and use systematic feedback from employers and university partners to update and improve their programs” (p. 4).

To develop a Student Success subscale best suited for community colleges, the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research adopted the Aspen Institute’s definition of student success, focusing on four principal areas: completion, equity, labor market, and learning. According to the Aspen Institute (2017), “These four measures of excellence are not stand-alone metrics of performance; rather, they are interdependent parts of a definition of community college excellence that is student-centered and that reflects the reality that community college is not a final destination for students but a springboard to a wide array of opportunities after they transfer or graduate” (p.12).

The table below provides further description of the four key areas of student success:

CompletionEnsuring that students earn associate’s degrees and other meaningful credentials, as well as bachelor’s degrees after they transfer.
EquityEnsuring equity in access and in learning, completion, and labor market success for minority, low-income, and other historically underserved students.
Labor MarketEnsuring that graduates find and maintain employment that provides a family-sustaining wage after completion of a degree or credential, and using labor market outcomes to improve programs.
LearningSetting high expectations for what students should learn, measure whether they are doing so, and using that information to engage faculty in improving teaching and curricula.
Source: https://highered.aspeninstitute.org/about/

Using the PACE Student Success subscale, community college leaders have an opportunity to gain insight into employee perspectives regarding their institution’s performance on critical student outcomes.


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