There are several problems with thinking about student success as merely a measure of individual students’ academic outcomes.

As work on MSU’s Strategic Plan has advanced, the steering committee has organized a series of workgroups to focus on key elements of what they expect might be part of the final version of the plan. I have been involved with the Student Success Working Group, which has been tasked with identifying goals and metrics around student success. Given all the work that has been done by various leadership groups at MSU over the last several years, we are well-positioned to answer the charge from the Strategic Planning Steering Committee.

The Student Success Working Group quickly realized that our first task was to define what was meant by “student success.” The term is so widely used across campus to describe so many different things that it has become what sociologists call a “boundary term.” It is a phrase that is understood differently by different people, which sometimes causes problems when the meanings contradict one another. So, now more than ever, we need to bluntly define what we mean when we say student success.

In the past – and still among some people – student success means “a particular student’s academic success” or “the success of students generally,” and it focuses primarily on students’ grades and their performances in their classes. Doubtlessly, any notion of student success will include some measure of the academic progression of our students, but Student Success is much more than that.

There are several problems with thinking about student success as merely a measure of individual students’ academic outcomes. First, it places the burden of success solely on the shoulders of the students themselves. A lack of success in this regard is as much a moral claim as it is an empirical one. Second, an institution can have a very high degree of this kind of student success simply by admitting only those students who are prepared in ways that make them extraordinarily likely to graduate. This undermines efforts to increase access to college and to provide equitable educations to students. Third, this definition of student success fails to take into account the fact that students only spend about 15% of their waking hours in class; going to college is about much more than just going to class.

Student Success is the measure of an institution’s ability to provide an inclusive and equitable curriculum, climate, and associated academic, social, wellness, and financial support so that all students can learn, thrive, persist, and graduate. Understood this way, Student Success is not a measure of the academic achievement of either individual students or students collectively; rather, measures like probation, persistence, graduation, sense of belonging, campus engagement, and time-to-degree indicate how well an institution is designed to support its students.

Abandoning the old notion of students’ success and replacing it with an institutionally focused vision for Student Success encourages us to fundamentally rethink many aspects of MSU’s undergraduate experience. For example, we can think differently about admissions decisions by switching from asking “should this student be admitted to MSU” to “is MSU capable of fully supporting this student to learn, thrive, and graduate?” It would compel us to examine every policy, procedure, and practice – from recruitment through graduation – to ask if it is equitable and designed to serve our students. The adoption of this definition of Student Success would offer us the opportunity to think carefully about students’ essential needs, including food and housing security, cost-of-attendance, health and wellness, career readiness, and all of the other things associated with college that extend beyond the classroom walls. It also offers the opportunity to allow for a more individualized – and truly diverse and inclusive – definition of success for each of our students.

For me, this definition of Student Success empowers and expects us to take responsibility for building and leading an institution that is accessible to a diverse group of potential students and that provides a truly equitable educational experience to everyone we admit.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.