Measuring What Matters in Student Success

Published Aug 22, 2023

ED’s latest Postsecondary Student Success Grant Program application includes performance measures recommended by IHEP research 

Earning a college degree is the best path to turning career aspirations into a successful livelihood and financially secure, fulfilling life. But many students who set out to earn a degree, don’t finish. A focus on student completion has grown in recent years given this staggering statistic: 40 million adults nationwide have earned some college credits, but no degree or credential. The Postsecondary Student Success Grant Program (PSSG), first funded in 2022, “aims to equitably improve postsecondary student outcomes, including retention, transfer, credit accumulation, and completion, by leveraging data and implementing, scaling, and rigorously evaluating evidence-based activities to support data-driven decisions and actions by institutional leaders.”  

The U.S. Department of Education is currently accepting applications for PSSG grants from institutions, and nonprofits or states in partnership with institutions. The application notice includes eight required performance measures and disaggregates, mirroring many of the key performance measures recommended in prior IHEP research. Given these parallels, IHEP’s 2016 report, Toward Convergence: A Technical Guide for the Postsecondary Metrics Framework, with its detailed definitions and background information, can serve as a useful resource for PSSG applicants and awardees. Toward Convergence analyzed metrics and definitions used by institutional and state initiatives and specifications used in national data collections designed to assess institutional performance related to student access, progression, completion, cost, and post-college outcomes. The report’s analysis also identified points of consensus within the field. The result? The Metrics Framework which serves two purposes:  

  1. Guide institutional improvement efforts to better serve all students. 
  2. Help policymakers support the development of student-focused, evidence-driven policies.

Table 1-1: A Field-Driven Metrics Framework

When it was written in 2016, Toward Convergence was meant to reflect where the field was and influence where it should go next. Since then, it has informed efforts such as the Postsecondary Data Partnership, which involves more than a dozen college completion initiatives and states. ED’s adoption of measures recommended by IHEP’s research highlights how the Metrics Framework set a standard for measuring what matters.  

For example, when Toward Convergence was published, only three of the 20 initiatives reviewed combined completion and upward transfer outcomes into a success measure. Now—seven years later—the PSSG application defines success rates for two-year institutions to include “graduation and upward transfer,” indicating how far the field has come towards implementing more robust measures of student success. Community colleges are critical starting points for many students, many of whom hope to earn a bachelor’s degree and roughly a third of whom transfer without graduating. Upward transfer rates capture these important contributions in a way that graduation rates alone do not. The PSSG application’s success measure captures this more complete view of students’ experience at community colleges and can serve as an example for institutions, states, and other initiatives.  

Toward Convergence offers more than 30 performance measures that can help institutions identify inequitable outcomes, pursue continuous improvement, and design completion programs that work.  

Congress should continue supporting the Postsecondary Student Success Grant program with increased funding. Many institutions nationwide, including those that participated in IHEP’s Degrees When Due initiative — a nationwide completion initiative to reengage students and build institutional capacity — can use PSSG grants to scale evidence-based completion efforts. The PSSG program promises a brighter future for student success and completion.   

PSSG Program applications are due on September 25, 2023.  

IHEP hosted a webinar on August 29, 2023 about the PSSG application process with speakers from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education and Passaic County Community College, a FY2022 PSSG grantee.