Defining student success: an examination of how faculty, staff, and administrators interpret and act upon institutional “college completion” policies and practices

Higher education institutions in the United States face a national imperative to boost student persistence and overall educational attainment amidst vacillating fiscal resources and growth in the non-traditional student body. According to Cominole, Radford, and Skomsvold (2015), 25% of all undergraduates in the United States worked full-time in 2011, and 34% of students also delayed postsecondary enrollment for at least one year after high school. However, existing literature suggests that faculty, staff, and administrators should develop an understanding of the variations and commonalities within a student’s educational journey, and develop specific policies, practices, and programs to ensure his/her success (Chaplot, Jenkins, Johnstone, & Rassen, 2013). Therefore, postsecondary institutions—including the California State University (CSU) system—are striving to develop a better understanding on how students learn, engage, and involve themselves with their college or university. Because students come from a variety of academic and economic backgrounds, they may enter the college or university with different levels of knowledge and expertise in navigating personal (e.g., a lack of financial resources) and institutional (e.g., inaccurate placement programs) barriers. Higher education institutions also often contain separate colleges or departments that do not have a history of interacting with each other (Weick, 1976). Therefore, students may have different and inconsistent interactions with various campus departments, divisions, and staff. These exchanges may either assist or impede the student’s ability to make timely progression or completion of his/her degree or certificate (Chaplot et al., 2013). Given these factors, higher education institutions may face difficulty in preventing barriers and aligning their culture, processes, and structures with the needs and expectations of every student. This exploratory research project utilized an organizational perspective, along with qualitative data, to explore these institutional barriers within the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies (SSIS) at Sacramento State. Given the national focus on college completion, changes in California’s demographics and economic trends, and the university’s non-traditional student body and historically low four-year graduation rate, Sacramento State represents a unique opportunity to investigate potentially longstanding institutional barriers that may impede student completion of a degree. I conducted 23 semi-structured interviews with faculty, staff, and administrators and six student focus groups across four academic departments within SSIS to develop an insight on the potential factors driving the College’s student success metrics relative to the rest of Sacramento State. While the role of SSIS in promoting student success was unclear, I found that there is “misalignment,” or a lack of consensus between different role-alike groups (such as between students and faculty), about how to best determine, implement, and oversee student success practices and initiatives. While I explored policies about academic preparation, student supports, and course standards, each stakeholder group in my study possessed different views on how to best improve student success at Sacramento State. In general, I found that: a) administrators wanted greater collaboration and communication between academic departments and the university’s central coordinating divisions (i.e., Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and the President’s Office); b) faculty desired access to resources, such as student progression and post-college data, and greater institutional support to more effectively track, advise, and mentor students; and c) students wished for more consistent, reliable information about transfer and graduation requirements and timely communication about the availability of campus support systems, such as the Women’s Resource Center. Because of the small sample and the specialized nature of my research, this study does not have any definitive, generalizable, findings for the university overall, but there are critically important implications for Sacramento State and SSIS. For example, Sacramento State may want to first consider defining student success, including how the effects of specific initiatives will be measured over time. This systematic conceptualization is important in order for key academic personnel (i.e., faculty, staff, advisers, etc.) to understand the university’s goals and how they will be operationalized. Furthermore, Sacramento State may also want to examine the following five factors as part of its student success initiatives: mission and culture, the role of SSIS, faculty support, advising systems, and data collection. Improvement in these areas may lead to better centralization and coordination of student success programs and services, fewer bureaucratic barriers, and a smoother path to completion for students.