Of course, all colleges and universities want their students to be successful. Faculty, staff, and administrators work together to create a learning experience that betters students and empowers them to achieve their goals. However, these are mere platitudes unless schools can translate their intentions for students into tangible results. In order to do this, many colleges and universities have tried to define certain markers of student success. The idea is that if they can properly track student well-being and accomplishment, they can work diligently to make more students successful. In this way, helping students flourish begins with figuring out what flourishing truly is

Understanding educational outcomes becomes even more practically important when student loans come into play. As with any other investment, the individuals and organizations that pay for students to go to college want to know that their money is being used properly. For this reason, the student lenders, grant providers, scholarship foundations, and government agencies who finance much of American education have their very own indicators of student success to monitor. These can be especially illuminating, especially for schools with performance-based funding initiatives, in which their funding depends in part on meeting student outcomes objectives. 

Thus, the essential, yet complex, question: what are the key indicators of student success?

Graduation is the Goal 

One of the most common measurements of student success is a school’s graduation rate. The concept is that if students are doing well, they will persist through their programs, finish their classes, and earn their diplomas. According to the American Council on Education (ACE), “graduation rates have become a key component of discussions about accountability in higher education.” As ACE explains, graduation rates are common student success indicators because “common sense suggests [that] a graduation rate can be a simple, standard measure that is easy to calculate…and little interpretation is required: A high number is good and a low number is bad.” 

While this makes superficial sense, ACE points out that “calculating graduation rates is more complex than widely perceived” and “interpreting them is an even bigger challenge.” Among other factors, graduation rates often fail to take into account: 

  • The selectivity and difficulty of the degree programs themselves (colleges with easier programs will likely have higher graduation rates) 
  • External factors, such as economic, familial, and social pressures, that could affect a student’s ability to graduate 
  • Students who transfer to different colleges and graduate from their new institutions

Clearly, graduation rates are not a perfect metric. Nevertheless, they do provide valuable insights on students’ achievement, and student loan providers take them very seriously. 

A 2017 report from the Center for American Progress cites multiple proposals that tie school risk-sharing measures and payment schedules to “graduation rates,” particularly for Pell Grant recipients. If these plans were to be put into effect, colleges and universities with insufficient graduation rates might have to pay more into their students’ loans. 

The Repayment Problem 

As with any lender, student loan providers are quite concerned with repayment. While they want students to do well, graduate, prosper, and lead happy lives, they also want to get their money back (plus interest). The 2017 ACE report notes that: “most of the proposals recommend that performance should be measured using…student loan default rates, student loan repayment rates, and…graduation rates.” Two out of three of these proposed metrics involve repayment. 

Similarly, according to a 2016 report from ACE, one proposal suggested that “institutions would pay back a portion of students’ loan balances when one of two negative financial outcomes occurred within five years of entering repayment: (1) default or (2) failure to repay on a reasonable schedule. In each case, a school would be required to pay back a share of the affected balances equal to the rate at which students defaulted or did not repay.” This suggests that, according to educational financiers, students are successful when they can pay their loans back. 

Once again, loan repayment seems to be a tricky tracking tool for student success because there are myriad elements that can interfere with this, no matter how great a student’s education or college experience was. However, since student loan debt is now a $1.5 trillion crisis in the U.S., as per Forbes, schools must consider how well they prepare their students to manage the debt they’ve incurred. Many students choose to go to college because they believe having a degree will improve their financial prosperity, and if the cost-benefit analysis of their educational investment isn’t coming out in your school’s favor, that’s something you may need to contend with. 

Being financially stable enough to repay student loans surely isn’t the only factor to evaluate when considering your students’ success, but it is a key indicator of their post-college well-being, particularly in today’s economic climate. Therefore, it is worth reflecting on when designing initiatives to improve educational outcomes. 

Post-Enrollment Earnings

According to a report from the Executive Office of the President of the United States, “the key measures of student success available in the data are graduation rates” and “loan repayment,” as we discussed above. The third component is “post-enrollment earnings.” Of course, this metric is highly related to the other two we’ve mentioned. As the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities puts it, “college-educated workers enjoy a substantial earnings premium. On an annual basis, bachelor’s degree holders earn about $32,000 more than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma.” It’s also much easier for students to repay their loans in a timely manner if they have sufficient post-enrollment earnings. 

There are a variety of aspects that affect a student or graduate’s ability to earn money. Their chosen field of study, professional aspirations, past work experience, and use of career counseling services all play a part. Thus, as with other key indicators of student success, post-enrollment earnings are not as straightforward as they may seem. However, of the three measures we’ve mentioned in this piece, post-enrollment earnings may be the most powerful indicator, since it is the most representative of a student’s well-being both career-wise and on the whole. This is not to say that how much a student makes in his or her future profession is the end-all, be-all, but it does have substantial sway over both a student’s life and loans. 

With this in mind, we recommend that schools prioritize strategies to maximize students’ post-enrollment earnings. One of the educators’ primary goals should be giving students the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to find and pursue viable careers in alignment with their passions. 

Solutions to Aid in Student Success

Attempting to raise graduation rates, student loan repayment statistics, and post-enrollment earnings for students is a daunting task for many schools. As we’ve covered above, each of these indicators is fraught with students’ unique, individual factors. Under the pressures of managing an entire college, it can be difficult to formulate strategies that address students as people, help them discover their passions, and propel them toward prosperous financial futures. Fortunately, there are tools available to students and educators alike that can help with all of the above.

Solutions such as the VitaNavis® platform, developed by The Myers-Briggs Company, can help students align their interests, strengths, and values with career pathways and future vocations while planning their academic and professional milestones. Once students have a clear goal in mind and have the support to take steps to work toward it, it paves the way towards a higher likelihood of graduating, earning an income, and paying back their loans.

If you’re curious to try out the VitaNavis platform, request a free trial!

What are the Key Indicators of Student Success?