Strategic Planning

Working Group J: Student Success information sheet

Members: Mike Brody (co-chair), Lily Copenagle, Tony Cross, Michael Faletra, Ari Galper ’14, Timothy Hackenberg, Linda Howard ’70, Mary James (co-chair), Danielle Juncal ’15, Bryan Kim ’14, Aaron Krenkel, A. Martinez ’73, Geraldine Ondrizek

The Big Picture

I. Clarifying the Project
Our goal is to define student success. The first step is to clarify our target. When we ask what constitutes student success at Reed College what are we really asking?
• We might be asking about success for students while they are actually attending Reed, or we might be asking about success for students in their lives after Reed.
• We might be asking about minimal student success (below which is student failure) or maximal student success (i.e., ideal educational outcomes).
• We might be asking about static levels of attainment or we might be asking about a dynamic trajectory of improvement. 
• We might be asking purely about academic success at Reed, or we might be asking about non-academic success, e.g., personal, moral, social, aesthetic, or intellectual development; the attainment of external goods like employment, awards, wealth, status, and influence; or the betterment of one’s society.

II. Our focus
The college has an interest in promoting each of these kinds of student success: during and after Reed; minimal and maximal; static and dynamic; academic and non-academic. But obviously, not all kinds of success are of equal importance. Minimal academic success is a precondition for continued membership in Reed’s student community, and therefore has a kind of priority over the other forms of success, a priority that will be reflected in our report.
But it is important to bear in mind that student success should not, generally speaking, be identified with minimal academic success. Students might meet the minimum academic standards at Reed while failing in other ways, e.g., they may be disengaged and profoundly unhappy, or do just enough work to stay marginally above our minimal threshold. They might succeed academically, but still bitterly resent Reed in later years for other aspects of their educational experience. Conversely, students may deem their time at Reed a success even if they perform poorly, academically, and perhaps even if they leave the college before graduation, provided they grew, intellectually or otherwise, while at Reed. [Steve Jobs?]
Some kinds of student success are more easily measured than others. Grades, graduation, retention, and employment rates, are all easily tracked, while long-term intellectual fulfillment, broad curiosity, creativity and rigor of thought, as well as the quality of one’s social contributions, are much harder to quantify. Yet these are still important components of what we consider student success. Generally speaking, minimal static academic success while at Reed is the easiest to determine, while maximal dynamic non-academic success during or after one’s time at Reed is the most difficult.
The goal of this report is ultimately to improve student success at Reed, and any workable plan for improvement must be evaluable, and therefore subject to measurement. Consequently, this report will focus on measurable dimensions of student success, along which we can set goals and track progress. In particular, we will focus on minimal academic success while at Reed. However, the more amorphous dimensions of student success should not be ignored or sacrificed simply because our methods of gathering data are not yet adequate to accurately assess them. These other dimensions of success are still central to the mission of the college.

III. Why this Committee Will Not Exclusively or Narrowly Define Non-Academic Student Success… or Preparation for an Honorable Life
There is no consensus in the community about what the harder-to-measure elements of student success are, nor about their relative importance. For instance, while some may think that success at Reed necessarily involves extracurricular activities, others may think that a maximally successful Reed education might involve no extracurricular activities whatsoever. Likewise, students may disagree about how to weigh various elements of success, e.g., how to make tradeoffs involved in allocating their resources among for instance, the Judicial Board, Chorus, and their Physics classes. Where there is such disagreement, this committee is wary of defining student success narrowly, in a way that reflects the interests and values of only one faction of the community.
It is very much in the spirit of Reed to accommodate a diversity of opinion about the nature of student success. After all, one of the goals of a liberal education, and a Reed education in particular, is to put students in the best possible position to think about what success is, and also to enable them to achieve that success. How well Reed does with respect to this goal is difficult to measure, but it is worth noting that Reed is, in various respects, particularly well-designed to achieve it. A few points on this score:

  • Reed College does not endorse one particular notion of non-academic success. While we set universal and non-negotiable standards for minimal academic success, students are entrusted with the task of deciding for themselves what success beyond minimal academic success, all things considered, entails.
  • Reed’s honor principle is deliberately indefinite, and relies on the collective judgment of the community to interpret and enforce it. The Reed community, therefore, is compelled to engage in constant deliberation about what is good for it, guided by only the most general of principles. This collective exercise parallels each individual Reed student’s deliberations about what is good for her.
  • Reed’s group requirements ensure that every Reed student is exposed to a variety of different ways of thinking, and to different sets of values. This broad exposure puts students in a better, more informed position to decide for themselves what constitutes success.
  • A similar function is served by a diverse faculty, staff, and student body, who provide a variety of perspectives and backgrounds against which one’s preconceived ideas of success may eventually be seen as parochial.
  • The conference method involves students in a social process of inquiry: Reed students learn to inquire together, and to advocate, respectfully and rationally, for their own views in that social setting. And the honor principle applies inside the classroom as well outside of it. There is no inherent distinction between pure intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of the good, for oneself or for the community.
  • The Reed education should prepare each student for the idiosyncratic version of success that she defines for herself, While asking what constitutes one’s own success, Reed challenges students to learn to be mindful of the needs, opinions, and values of others, and to incorporate their own personal visions of success into a vision for the success of their community. A Reed education thus enables students to determine and pursue their own good in the context of determining and pursuing the good of their community.
  • In other words, among other things, a Reed education should prepare a student for an honorable life. Indeed, the honor principle does not expire upon graduation, but continues to guide one’s conduct thereafter.
  • Insofar as the college endorses any explicit non-academic component of student success, both during and after college, it is simply this: leading an honorable life. While it is not easily measured, and while there is no universal agreement about what honor is, it is not meaningless either. We can and should ask what policies or features of the college better position students both to determine what an honorable life would involve, for them, and also to achieve such a life.