Defining Postsecondary Success to Advance Equity, Innovation, and Effective Strategies

How we define “success” in higher education is critical to advancing equitable, innovative, effective policies and practices. That definition sets the stage for how actors across the system set priorities, commit resources, partner with stakeholders, and assess their progress. Last month, America Forward partnered with leading postsecondary student success organization One Million Degrees (OMD) to submit a response to a recent Request for Information from the U.S. Department of Education on just that topic: how the Department should design a Postsecondary Student Success Award program to recognize colleges and universities across the country.

We were grateful to partner with OMD in order to leverage insights from their incredible work to support community college students on career pathways to economic mobility. OMD provides financial, academic, personal and professional support to scholars enrolled at the City Colleges of Chicago, and partners with community colleges across the nation to design and implement holistic student support models. Per a randomized controlled trial evaluation of OMD conducted by the University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab, OMD scholars are 73% more likely to learn a degree than their peers.

We deeply appreciated the Department’s intent to recognize colleges that support success across all of their students by conferring affordable credentials of value while enrolling student bodies reflective of their communities– and including students from underserved populations. Our response emphasized several themes that One Million Degrees and other members of the America Forward Coalition have found critical to their student success efforts in partnership with colleges and universities, including:

  • Encourage partnerships with non-governmental partners. The incredible impact of student success organizations in the America Forward Coalition demonstrates the critical ability of  non-governmental organizations to partner and scale practices that individual institutions and systems are often not able to do on their own. We encouraged the Department to recognize partnerships across a range of dimensions, from college completion to career navigation, as an essential component of institutions’ success strategies. We also encouraged the Department to consider how well-integrated these partnerships are in practice – for instance, how partner career coaches connect to institutions’ internal staff, including faculty, and whether institutions leverage external partnerships to offer dedicated student success courses.
  • Elevate longer-term career outcomes and consider context. We agreed with the Department’s intent to take a data-driven approach, including a focus on outcomes such as completion rates, average earnings, and debt-to-income ratios as well as earlier leading indicators. We also urged the Department to consider key contextual factors for success metrics, given the extensive evidence demonstrating the importance of considering not just absolute outcomes, but growth measures that account for disparate labor market outcomes across gender, race, and ethnicity – including the impact of job market discrimination and prior academic preparation. In addition, we emphasized the need to consider the extent to which graduates pursue economically-sustainable public service careers in addition to economic outcomes alone, as well as how institutions shift their program offerings and enrollment slots given evidence that at many colleges slots for high-return, socially-valuable programs like nursing are capped because the incentive structure for expenses and revenue doesn’t support expansion.
  • Emphasize evidence-based strategies and ongoing innovation. We urged the Department to elevate the importance of sustained investment in building and scaling evidence-based strategies. Recognizing differences in funding across institutions, we encourage the Department to celebrate not just the most-resourced institutions but also those that are actively prioritizing improvement. That includes conducting high-quality, independent evaluation of student success practices, as well as building critical data and human infrastructure for ongoing performance management and continuous improvement. Further, we encouraged the Department to elevate the value of formative research to develop innovative approaches that serve a range of diverse student populations – including the adaptation of existing evidence-based approaches to new settings and populations through strategies like rapid-cycle evaluation and pilots.
  • Prioritize proximate voices. We emphasized the importance of engaging diverse student perspectives as a critical strategy to improve programs and outcomes, including assessing students’ needs, considering the effectiveness of student success approaches, and soliciting ideas for new approaches. We also recognized the importance of colleges’ board compositions and encouraged the Department to elevate institutions whose boards incorporate proximate, lived expertise in the local communities served as well as members working in public service careers.

We are excited by the Department’s plans to develop the Postsecondary Student Success Award Program and appreciate the opportunity to share our perspective. To read our full recommendations, click here.

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