The shift from a post-industrial to a knowledge economy has placed higher education at the center of attention among policy makers and the public at large. The increase in attention, along with the increasing diversity in the funding sources of higher education institutions (HEIs) has prompted calls for greater accountability. Efforts to assess the effectiveness of HEIs include a variety of accountability frameworks and review processes. These efforts produce competing pressures for both institutional differentiation and convergence: differentiation to efficiently accommodate broader participation and meet a wide array of societal needs; and convergence to compete for international prestige and recognition as demarcated by research university rankings. This paper examines the extent to which distinguishing between types of HEIs via taxonomies or classification systems has expanded or can contribute to expanding the basis upon which HEI performance is evaluated in order to meet the full range of societal expectations for higher education in the 21st Century.
The meaning of student success differs according to the goals, interests and roles among prospective students, their parents and extended family, educators, scholars, employers, legislators and other stakeholders. Despite this wide variation, accountability for student success has been mostly equated with readily available measures like degree completion rates, time to degree and credit accumulation. Recently, especially in the United States, where the student assumes a large cost burden for attending college, interest has increased regarding the amount of debt incurred and the employment and wages obtained post-graduation to enable students to pay off that debt. There are many from within and outside the academy who criticize these simplistic measures of student success and seek evidence about how a college education develops students intellectually and morally, preparing them to lead lives as productive citizens and members of the 21st Century workforce. In this article, we review the key concepts of student success that have emerged from the U.S. higher education research literature, as well as major U.S. policy initiatives related to improving student success. The purpose of this analysis is to develop an organizing framework that enables scholars and policy makers to place their work within a broader context as related to the discourse on student success in the early 21st Century, especially within the United States, but with increasingly common elements internationally.