For many years, community colleges have focused on providing access to everyone seeking a post-secondary education. More recently the narrative has changed to that of completion and how long it takes the student to complete. The literature tells us the longer a student is in college, the less likely she is to complete. The completion rates for first-time full-time degree seeking students are low – especially for community college students. Generally speaking, when we measure student success, what we are talking about is completion rates.

The fact is many – if not most – of our students are not first-time, full-time degree seeking students. Many have already completed a college education, some having attained bachelors and masters degrees, before coming back to start over in a new career. More and more of our student population are enrolling part-time. Others not seeking a degree at all, but instead, looking to update their job skills by taking a course or two. How do we measure student success for these learners?

California Community Colleges studied these non-completers over a two-year period. Referred to as Skills Builders, these students enrolled in a limited number of courses for the express purpose of enhancing their job skills or moving up the ladder within their careers. The study found that the average Skills Builder improved their salary by 13.6% – averaging $4,300 / year! Clearly these students were successful in meeting their educational goals.

EDUCAUSE Review recently published a collection of short essays entitled, Student Success: Mission Critical.  In the introduction, John O’Brien says, “If students don’t succeed, colleges and universities don’t succeed. Our full attention must be concentrated on the mission-critical goal of helping students define – and meet- their educational goals.”

To my way of thinking, this is what we should be talking about when we talk about student success: “helping students define – and meet – their educational goals“.

Regardless of whether students come to college to take a few courses to improve their employability, complete a program of study, or transfer to university, achieving their educational goals requires persistence. We often hear the terms “persistence and “retention” used synonymously. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), however, differentiates between the terms: “retention” as an institutional measure and “persistence” as a student measure. In other words, institutions retain and students persist.

This is an important distinction when it comes to measuring student success. As an institution, we can measure retention: did the student drop / complete? Has the student continued their program of study? However, whether the learner persists or not, is really up to the student. For this reason, we can, and should, create a learning environment that encourages student persistence.

“Tinto posits that students are more likely to remain enrolled in an institution if they become connected to the social and academic life of that institution” – Community College Research Center (CCRC).

The CCRC study found that community college students who make academic connections… “create a sense of belonging and attachment that seems to encourage persistence” – CCRC.

In Student Success: Mission Critical, George Mchaffey reminds us to not “avoid the academic heart of the enterprise… But the core of the enterprise is the curriculum and particularly the classroom. Some people avoid tackling that area because it is likely the most difficult. However, substantive change in student success outcomes must include attention to what happens to students in classrooms and in their academic journeys.”

We can measure student success in different ways: retention is measured by the quantity of students who continue and complete, but persistence in measured by the quality of the student’s experience – whether they belong here and how much we care.