by Alicia Betz

Success in college is often measurable: grades, degrees, and securing jobs—but the real growth and achievement usually happens intangibly. This article explores alternate definitions and examples of student success that ultimately create a more balanced and well-rounded person.

  • Success Isn’t Always Measurable: My Experience
  • How Failure Equates to Success
  • True Success Encompasses the Whole Person
  • Alternate Definitions of Success from Students

Success Isn’t Always Measurable: My Experience

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist. My parents never had to sit me down and make me do my homework. Even in elementary school, I made it a priority to complete every assignment, and I stressed if I forgot to bring a textbook home or didn’t have enough time to finish my homework. It comes as no surprise, then, that I got good grades in college.

What did come as a surprise was that one of my biggest accomplishments in college had nothing to do with grades, but everything to do with making friends. My cohort of English Education majors had such a tight bond, and many of us still talk and support each other today. Our professors gave us the space to form connections, network, and work collaboratively; had they been so focused on instruction and assessment in our classes, I never would have been able to build these relationships. They knew that we would grow and learn just as much from each other and from sharing our field experiences as we would from the course material, so there were many times when they just stepped back and let that happen.

It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I realized a valuable life lesson: success isn’t always measurable. We all strive for the grades, the degrees, and the jobs because those are the measuring sticks of success that society uses. From the time we were little, our parents hung our A+ papers on the refrigerator. We took pictures to celebrate our preschool, high school, and college graduations. We had a special night out or made our first big purchase when we got our first “real” job.

What it took me so long to realize, however, is that you’re not made into the person you are in those moments. You’re made who you are in all those moments in between. When you figured out how to live independently the first time you moved away from home. When you learned conflict resolution by living with a roommate who just didn’t get you. When you learned how to manage money by accidentally overdrawing your account. When you tried to organize an intramural volleyball team with your friends and failed miserably.

How Failure Equates to Success

Failure is, in fact, an integral component of success, both for the individual and for the greater good of all. Recall the famous Thomas Edison quote:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

If it weren’t for Edison’s “failures,” he wouldn’t have invented the light bulb, the telegraph, the phonograph, and more. An essential part of success is learning that nine times out of ten, you’re not going to get it right on the first try. When students enter their first job out of college, there is going to be a learning curve. If all they’ve ever known is straight A grades, they’re going to find this very challenging.

Another example of failure for the greater good can be found in nature. When penguins jump into icy, dark water, they have no idea what will be waiting for them under the surface. Nonetheless, one brave penguin has to be the first one to jump in and find out if there are dangerous predators lurking below the surface. It might be a spectacular success, or it could be an epic failure. Nobody knows until the first penguin takes the risk.

Randy Pausch, the late computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote about the concept of the first penguin in his book, The Last Lecture. He even created an award for the first penguins in his class, as he explained in the book:

When I taught the ‘Building Virtual Worlds’ course, I encouraged students to attempt hard things and to not worry about failing. I wanted to reward that way of thinking. So at the end of each semester, I’d present one team of students with a stuffed animal—a penguin. It was called ‘The First Penguin Award’ and went to the team that took the biggest gamble in trying new ideas or new technology, while failing to achieve their stated goals. In essence, it was an award for ‘glorious failure,’ and it celebrated out-of-the-box thinking and using imagination in a daring way. The other students came to understand: ‘First Penguin’ winners were losers who were definitely going somewhere.

Through this award, Pausch was able to create a safe place for students to try out their biggest ideas without the fear of failure, which so often holds students back—especially those who pursue higher education. They fear that their parents and teachers will be disappointed in them if they don’t do well on an assignment, or if they get a low grade in a course. This fear of failure and the need to do well can actually hinder learning and development as students focus on the grade rather than what they are actually getting out of the material. When administrators and professors celebrate failure the way that Pausch did, students have the space to find spectacular success.

True Success Encompasses the Whole Person

You would be hard pressed to find a successful person who hasn’t failed, but failure isn’t the only measure of success. Joe Cuseo, Ph.D. talks about student success in terms of holistic development. He further breaks down the dimensions of holistic development into intellectual, emotional, social, ethical, physical, and spiritual development.

According to Cuseo, students are much more likely to find the traditional definition of success when they do or experience the following things: 

  • Feel validated
  • Feel that their efforts matter
  • Find personal relevance and purpose in their college experience
  • Are actively engaged in their own learning process
  • Find a social connection within their school
  • Reflect on what they learn in the classroom
  • Understand and know their own learning styles
Joe Cuseo

Professor Joe Cuseo in the classroom. Photo courtesy of

No matter how well students are doing in the classroom, if they don’t feel fulfilled and successful as a person, they are going to struggle in almost every aspect of their lives. Cuseo found that up to 85 percent of students who drop out of college don’t do so because they can’t handle the classes. Helping students with non-academic issues is imperative to any retention program. Holistic development looks different for every student, but without it, colleges are essentially training robots to spew out information.

Alternate Definitions of Success from Students

College is as much about the experience as it is about the education, and neither exists in a vacuum. I spoke to a few recent college graduates to gather their thoughts on what success looked like for them in college.

One of the recent graduates didn’t take a traditional path; she started out at a big university and left during her first semester because it was all just too overwhelming for her. She eventually finished her degree at a smaller school six years later, and with a completely different major.

When I asked her if she ever felt like a failure in this unconventional path she took, she said, “I really did at first. I felt like I was letting everyone down. Everyone else went to college and graduated and I felt like there was something wrong with me because I had to transfer and didn’t finish on time.”

In the eyes of the big school she transferred from, she undoubtedly was seen as a failure. If you look at her stats, she failed courses, quit showing up to classes, and eventually dropped out. What she learned about herself in the process, though, was invaluable.

“I’ve changed so much,” she remarked. “I realized that what’s right for everyone else isn’t what’s right for me.”

Other students noted that some of their biggest successes in college included finding their spouse, learning how to live a healthy lifestyle, learning how to live on their own, and figuring out how to apply what they learn in the classroom.

One recent grad even said, “C’s get degrees,” referring to the fact that it’s not all about what happens in the classroom. Although this isn’t what most people who are preparing students for the workforce want to hear, there is some truth to it. Once students graduate and find that coveted first job, their grades in college lose their gravitas.

For me personally, as a teacher, I’ve never once had a student or parent ask me what my grades were like in college. They care much more about my actual ability to mentor and teach than what a piece of paper says about my knowledge. My success as a teacher comes from my skills and experiences, not the grade I got on an exam my freshman year of college.


Obviously, grades matter and students need to graduate, but the real life skills that make students employable and teach them how to live successful lives are immeasurable, and they aren’t usually taught in the classroom. You can’t assign a grade to what a student learns by starting a new club on campus; and conversely, a straight-A student who doesn’t have any experience outside the classroom might really struggle after graduation.

Success is fraught with experiences that don’t fit neatly onto a piece of paper. Giving students that safe space to fail, and even encouraging them to take risks that might end up in failure can be so instrumental to their growth and eventual success. When you start looking at success of the whole person and stop measuring success with statistics and grades, you actually give students more opportunities to succeed in all aspects of their lives.

About the author:

Alicia earned her bachelor’s in education from Penn State University and her master’s in education from Michigan State University, where she also earned her certificate in online teaching and learning. She is a high school English teacher as well as a professional writer specializing in education. She uses her experience in the classroom both as a teacher and a student to write actionable and authentic pieces for various educational publications. Alicia can be reached at


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