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The definition of success

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.3, 30 January 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

A headline caught my eye – “As Talk about Retention Rises, Rates Drop.” There has been a clear increase in recent years of interest in addressing issues related to student retention in tertiary institutions and at long last around the world a shift was talking place it seemed. Talk of “success was replacing talk about “access”.

When tertiary systems were more elite than they are now, it seemed enough to say “Well you got your chance at tertiary and you didn’t take advantage of it.” The onus was clearly on the student to shape up.

But as tertiary education widened both the scope of the programmes offered and the range of students admitted into an increased range of education and training settings, interest shifted to the outcomes. Recognising that higher levels of qualification and increased levels of training were critically important to economic performance let alone transformation, retention in programmes was a goal of administrators, support staff in institutions and teaching staff.

But an issue with the discussion on retention is how to measure it and the United States does this by using the fact of a student returning to their institution, especially from the first to the second year, as evidence of retention. That is a crude and unsatisfactory measure. It fails to take account of students who are transferring to other institutions.

In New Zealand such a measure would also fail to take account of those doing courses of less than a year’s duration – and that is a huge number. 38% of tertiary students in New Zealand are enrolled at a certificate level which would be typically a programme of a duration equivalent to one year or less. 

What would be a better measure of “success”? Successful completion can be the only measure of success. I know that there is a wide array of elegant arguments that claim that students seek partial qualifications, that they are after other outcomes such as increased self esteem, that they are completing qualifications within unconventional timeframes and so on. These just don’t stand up.

If students want only partial qualifications then what is wrong with the qualifications being offered? Have they become obsolete? Do they not meet the needs of students and the settings into which they take these “qualifications? And why do I not see employment advertisements that state “successful applicants have probably done part of a diploma in whatever?

The self esteem argument can only be pursued by people with complete qualifications surely. When did you last hear a student say “I failed ABC and did not finish my Certificate in XYZ but I feel I am a much better person”? And if we have unique student identifiers why can’t we track students who change education and training providers, or work towards qualifications over a period of time?

Being able to state firmly that the successful completion of qualification is the only measure of student retention and success would be a mark of maturity in the tertiary education system.

The reports on retention must also take into account the greatly increased range of students entering a greatly widened variety of programmes of education and training now called tertiary. Reports of this percentage or that have to be careful to measure a similar sample. Remember that tertiary now even has programmes about tertiary. If you are going to admit a greater range of students then the very real issues of academic preparation have to be considered. All the evidence runs in support of the view that levels of academic preparation for postsecondary education and training has declined and continues to decline.

But there is good news in the latest retention reports we are told. Community Colleges in the United States have retained 53.7% of their students from Year 1 to Year 2. This is an increase from the low point of 51% in 2004.

You just have to ask yourself whether or not a system is working when having attracted 73% of a cohort of students a sector as important as the community colleges can only retain a little over half of them. (Remember that the community colleges are based on a two year programme offering two years qualifications.) This means that having entered an open access institution in the US, 40% of the cohort of students has left by the start of the second year!

The argument against using qualification completion as the measure of success in postsecondary education and training has usually been based on a fear that this could or even would lead quickly to designing funding arrangements based on it. This might not be a bad thing. Certainly providers that are doing a good job would be rewarded and those who are not would not. But it would also be simplistic because the hard yards done by tertiary providers are equally hard.

There is no argument that students entering a selective or elite institution require anything like the same degree of support required by those entering an open access situation for which they are insecurely equipped in academic terms. Different sections of the community require different levels of support. For instance, students who are first in family to enter tertiary education require a different level of commitment from an institution than do those who are not. And the statistics related to Maori and Pasifika performance at tertiary do not allow for any reduction in commitment and effort in the retention and success direction! Those who cater for greater numbers from those groups clearly have a greater load when it comes to support for retention and success.

So funding based on successful completion would have to take account of the different levels of support that are require and this is probably too hard for officials to contemplate and for systems to devise. There would also be vigorous arguments against differential funding based on student group just as there has been over the years for the retention of the total EFTS base for calculating equity funding. 

I am excited by the international trends in all these issues. It suggests that they are reflective of certain kinds of education systems and certain policy settings rather than a bad reflection of this country or that. It also might mean that approaches and solution found in one system might have relevance for progress here.

Surely it is not beyond the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to collectively develop pathways which lead to improvement. But are we talking with each other?

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