Student Success in College:
Assessing the Conditions for Educational Effectiveness
George D. Kuh, Jillian Kinzie, John H. Schuh, Elizabeth J. Whitt
January 19, 2006

George D. Kuh is Chancellor’s Professor of Higher Education at Indiana University Bloomington. He directs the Center for Postsecondary Research which is home to the National Survey of Student Engagement, the NSSE Institute for Effective Educational Practice, and the College Student Experiences Questionnaire Research Program.

Jillian Kinzie is Associate Director of the NSSE Institute for Effective Educational Practice at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. She was the Project Manager of the DEEP initiative. Previously, she taught in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at Indiana University and worked in academic and student affairs administration. 

John H. Schuh is Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Iowa State University. He is editor of the New Directions for Student Services sourcebook series and associate editor of the Journal of College Student Development.

Elizabeth J. Whitt is a professor in the College of Education at The University of Iowa, and coordinates Graduate Programs in Student Affairs.  She is associate editor of the New Directions for Student Services sourcebook series, and her research and scholarly interests include college student experiences and student affairs administration. 

All colleges and universities can improve the quality of their teaching and student learning, especially in the all-important first year of college. The trick is figuring out how to do it.

Most colleges and universities face challenges at three key points when taking stock of their performance:

  • launching a comprehensive institutional examination initiative;
  • sustaining the effort over an extended period of time; and
  • taking action on what they learn from that effort.

This essay introduces the Inventory for Student Engagement and Success (ISES), a framework to help institutions work through these difficult points along the road to improvement (Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). ISES was inspired by the findings from the Documenting Effective Educational Practices (DEEP) project, a two-year study of 20 four-year colleges and universities w ith strong records of student success. Their graduation rates and scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) were “higher than predicted” in that they performed better than would be expected given their student and institutional characteristics.

The Inventory supplements information that can be obtained from the NSSE survey and the policies, practices, and cultural features common to the 20 DEEP institutions described in Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 2005). While the NSSE survey does an adequate job of measuring some key aspects of student engagement, the range and depth of information collected are necessarily limited. Moreover, the institutional conditions that contribute to student success and educational effectiveness discovered in the DEEP project are all but impossible to accurately capture using surveys. Thus, at the heart of ISES are diagnostic questions designed to discover how well an institution uses its resources to create the conditions that foster student success. The questions fall into two categories: 1) those related to the five clusters of effective educational practices measured by NSSE and 2) those related to the seven properties common to DEEP institutions. Some of the queries from the second category are outlined in this essay to illustrate the complex features of campus environments and educational practices addressed by ISES. In a future essay, we will describe the assessment process itself including how to get started and who should be involved.

I. A “Living” Mission and “Lived” Educational Philosophy

“ Mission” refers to the overarching purposes of the institution – what it is, what it stands for, and what it aspires to be. An institution’s philosophy is composed of tacit understandings about how institutional values guide policy and decision making.

    • What is the espoused institutional mission? What does the college or university assert its educational purposes to be?
    • What is the institution’s enacted institutional mission? To what do people devote their time and energies in working with students and programs? What is valued and rewarded?
    • When, where, how, by whom, and to whom are institutional values communicated?
    • In what ways and to what extent does the mission influence student learning and success?
    • What current activities at the institution might need to be deemphasized or eliminated to be consistent with the mission?
    • What are the guiding beliefs about how learning occurs most effectively? To what extent are those beliefs reflected in teaching and learning?

    II. Unshakeable Focus on Student Learning

    At high performing institutions, student learning is the raison d’etre for institutional policies, programs, practices, and the rationale for daily activities as well as broad institutional directions.

    • Do students receive timely, frequent feedback from faculty and staff about the quality of their performance?
    • To what extent is commitment to student learning a criterion for selecting and rewarding administrators, faculty and staff?
    • To what extent and in what ways are students expected and prepared to teach, and learn from, one another in and out of class?
    • What resources, such as teaching and learning centers, are available and used by faculty?
    • Are faculty and staff encouraged to experiment with pedagogical approaches that promise to foster student learning and engagement?
    • To what extent and in what ways are faculty and student affairs staff expected to make time for students and rewarded for doing so?
    • In what ways, and to what extent, does the institution encourage interaction between faculty and students outside of class?
    • To what extent are learning experiences -- inside and outside classrooms – tailored to the needs, experiences, and learning styles of each student?

    III. Environments Adapted for Educational Enrichment

    Learning environments include all the physical and psychological spaces in which students, faculty, and staff live, work, and play.

    • To what extent are the physical setting and structures of the campus adapted effectively for teaching and learning?
    • Are facilities and services accessible to students? Who uses them, when, and for what purposes? Who does not?
    • If your institution contemplated adding new facilities or undertaking a massive renovation, what process would you use to create spaces to foster student engagement? What features might you use to create human scale living and learning settings?
    • How do students describe the campus climate and how does this influence student learning and success? Are students’ descriptions consistent across student groups?
    • What institutional policies and practices affirm and support or alienate and discourage full participation by members of historically-under-served groups?
    • In what ways, and to what extent, does the institution use the educational resources of the surrounding community?

    IV. Clearly Marked Pathways to Student Success

    To encourage students to devote time and energy to the right activities, DEEP schools (1) teach students what the institution values, what successful students do, and how to take advantage of institutional resources for learning and (2) make sure resources are available to all their students.

    • What does the institution do to communicate the expectation that students assume a fair share of responsibility for their learning, prior to and after students start college?
    • What symbols and actions communicate to newcomers the importance of students and their learning and success?
    • To what extent are resources ‘front-loaded’ to foster students’ academic and social success?
    • Do all students have equal access to institutional resources?
    • Is the amount of challenge and support consistent with the needs of students and with the institution’s educational priorities? Do students who need extra support receive it?
    • What policies and practices identify students at risk? What early warning systems are in place at your institution? To what extent are they used, in what ways, and by whom?
    • Do faculty members know where or to whom to refer students experiencing difficulties?
    • Would a complex, comprehensive support program make sense at your institution? If so, what steps would be necessary to put such a system in place?

    V. Improvement-Oriented Ethos

    DEEP colleges are “positively restless.” They strive to monitor themselves and improve continually, in both formal and informal ways: their current level of performance and whether they are making progress toward desired goals and objectives. 

    • To what extent does your school value and foster innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking?
    • To what extent, and in what ways is an improvement-oriented ethos widely shared?
    • To what extent are individuals and offices accountable for collecting and using reliable and valid data?
    • What data related to student success and effective educational practice are collected, for what purposes, and by whom? How are they used?
    • In what ways are budget priorities and allocations consistent with the educational mission, institutional values, and student success efforts?

    VI. Shared Responsibility for Educational Quality and Student Success

    Faculty, staff, and students on DEEP campuses see themselves as educators. Student learning is widely accepted as everyone’s responsibility (Kinzie & Kuh, 2004).

    • Where do students, their learning, and their success appear on the agendas of formal and informal institutional leaders?
    • To what extent, and in what ways, do academic affairs staff, student affairs staff, faculty, librarians, instructional technology professionals and their policies, programs, and practices, reflect and support the educational mission of the institution?
    • To what extent, and in what ways, do academic and student affairs offices, programs, and personnel collaborate to facilitate student success?
    • To what extent are boundaries and lines between academic and student affairs visible or invisible at your institution? What impact does this have on students and their learning and institutional effectiveness?
    • If developing a collaborative ethic at your institution is desirable, how might faculty and student affairs staff work together to make this happen? What problems and obstacles would need to be addressed for such an effort to succeed?

    VII. “Ultimately, It’s About the Culture.”

    Student success is in part a function of complicated, inextricably intertwined institutional factors and conditions, including educational mission, operating philosophies, resources, programs, and practices. The institution’s culture binds these various properties.

    • To what extent do your institution’s cultural properties support or inhibit enactment of its espoused mission?
    • In what ways do the institutional culture and/or the dominant subcultures of the institution promote, or inhibit, student learning and success?
    • In what ways does the language that administrators, faculty, and others use communicate the importance of students and their learning?
    • In what ways do the student culture and/or dominant student subcultures promote student learning and success?
    • What opportunities exist to celebrate students and their learning, institutional values and the campus community?
    • Should some elements of the culture be modified to promote promising pedagogical approaches or more consistent use of effective educational practices? How might this be done?

    Looking Ahead

    ISES is a work in progress. We developed it to stimulate reflection, conversation, and action based on findings from the DEEP project and other studies of high performing colleges and universities, student engagement, and institutional improvement. Although any institution can benefit from the probing, self-reflecting queries in ISES, the process yields the most useful results in settings where students and their learning are among the institution’s highest priorities and where a critical mass of institutional members are ready to evaluate the status quo.

    In a subsequent essay we’ll outline the ISES process that includes focusing the assessment on the first college year, using various data collection approaches (e.g., surveys, focus groups), building support for comprehensive institutional assessment, and using results of the assessment to implement change. In that essay, we’d like to include examples of how institutions have successfully used the ISES on their campuses. If your campus has used ISES, please email Jillian Kinzie ( ) with your success story.

    More information about ISES, NSSE, and the NSSE Institute for Effective Educational Practice can be found at


    The authors retain all rights to this essay. However, FYA-List subscribers may distribute the essay for non-commercial purposes.



    Kinzie, J., & Kuh, G.D. (2004). Going DEEP: Learning from campuses that share responsibility for student success. About Campus, 9(5), 2-8.

    Kuh, G.D. (2003). What we’re learning about student engagement from NSSE. Change, 35(2), 24-32.

    Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J. & Associates (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). Assessing conditions for student success: An inventory to enhance educational effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    National Survey of Student Engagement (2000). The NSSE 2000 Report: National benchmarks of effective educational practice. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.