What Are We Talking About When We Talk About “Student Success”? 

Earlier this year, a bunch of us on Team RHB were having a lively conversation in our multi-time zone Zoombox about RHB’s growing student success practice, when our president, Sam Waterson, paused the conversation and asked the question posed in the title of this article.

“It reminds me of ‘peacekeeping missiles’,” said the eponymous founder of our firm, Rick Bailey, (whose Richard Harrison Bailey forms the R, H and B in “RHB”).

As often happens when you gather a bunch of really smart and curious people around a contested idea, we started deconstructing “student success.” (I ask for patience and forgiveness from scholars of Jacques Derrida who may take issue with my liberal application of “deconstruction,” an approach created by the French philosopher known for his “deep fascination with words and wordplay,” as well as his “insights into the slipperiness and instability of language”1—but when you’re challenging a term used in academia, well, Derrida seems like a good place to start.)

Both of those quotes come from “My Students Love Derrida,” but when you’re challenging a term used in academia, well, Derrida seems like a good place to start.)

So let’s break it down.

Are we talking about retention?

If you’re speaking from an institutional perspective—literally as the entity “retaining” the students (and, if we’re being fully transparent, the net student revenue they provide)—you’d probably be right. And give yourself a bonus point if, upon hearing “retention,” you hear the commonly quoted, rarely quantified and occasionally true statement, “It’s cheaper to retain a student than it is to recruit a student.”

When we start talking about “retention” we quickly get to retention rates or, for that matter, graduation rates, both of which are byproducts and institutional KPIs that measure how many students are moving through key phases at your institution. And that’s only for students who start at an institution as first-time college students. Where do students who transfer into the institution fit into the equation? What about those who transfer out and “successfully” complete their degrees elsewhere?

Sometimes colleges will use the term “persistence,” as that speaks more to student activity, persisting from one year to the next, or to credential attainment, even if the student ends up finishing at another institution. However, we might want to pause and consider what message we are sending when we are describing student progress with a term that denotes one carrying on “resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning.” (Hat-tip to the good people at Merriam-Webster.)

Within those retention or graduation rates, institutions naturally make comparisons among various cohorts—for example, SES, race, ethnicity or family educational background—looking for disparities or inequities in “results,” trying to determine what may be causing gaps in “success” among those different cohorts, and then identifying strategies or interventions to address those causes.

But that sounds more like “enrollment management success” than “student success.”

“It’s not about throughput”

Joseph Montgomery, RHB’s Dan Saracino Chair of Enrollment Management and North Carolina A&T State University’s Associate Provost for Enrollment, has a different view. He encourages us to rise above the measures and then dive deeply down to the level of each student. “It’s not about throughput, getting students to a degree.” At the institutions he has served over the years, he routinely asks students why they were there in the first place. The overwhelming answer? “They’re here to get a job, to fulfill a dream.”

Which makes his take on student success all the more potent, and the stakes for an institution even higher: “Student success is delivering on the promise—and supporting their dream.” 

Delivering on the promise? Supporting dreams?

What are we talking about when we are talking about student success?

We’re talking about Coherence.

It’s intentionally italicized and capitalized, because it’s a concept developed by Rick Bailey in his book, Coherence: How Telling the Truth Will Advance Your Cause (and Save the World): 

Coherence is the discipline of ensuring a transparent connection between customer expectations (brand) and authentic user experience. Coherence is aligning what we deliver with what we say we deliver. Coherence is shaping a meaningful experience that meets their needs ( 31 ).

The book is the organizing principle for the work we at RHB do on behalf of our clients, whether it’s helping them identify their one true place in the universe and telling that story clearly and compellingly to the world, creating signature experiences that are living expressions of their institutional values, assessing how they may better fulfill the expectations in their constituents’ minds, or harnessing Slate to optimize operational success in recruitment, student success and advancement.

It also guides our counsel for institutions that are committed to create and support the conditions that are conducive for their students not only to succeed, but thrive along their journeys from discovery to deposit to degree and beyond—and doing so in ways that are equitable for their students. (And if not, why not?).

It is the lens through which we assess whether an institution’s behaviors—as well as its strategy, staffing, structure, systems and spending—are aligned with the position it has staked out for itself in the marketplace. It blurs the lines between recruitment and retention, recognizing that you can’t have true success in one without the other, because they both are shaped by and inform each other.

If your institution is ready to have a conversation about how Coherence can inform your student success efforts, we’re ready.

(And if you’re interested in getting a copy of Coherence for yourself and your team, head over to the RHB Library.)

1 Both of those quotes come from “My Students Love Derrida,” a 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education essay written by one of my favorite English professors on the planet, Tim Spurgin of Lawrence University

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Ken Anselment

Ken is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at RHB.