Educational Administration, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of College Student Development, Volume 61, Number 5, September-October 2020, pp. 637-643.



Published by Johns Hopkins University Press


In recent years, improving the quantitative methods used to assess the effect of college, and particular college experiences, on student outcomes has received increased attention (e.g., Mayhew et al., 2016). In How College Affects Students, Mayhew et al. (2016) highlighted the importance of issues of practical vs. statistical significance, self-selection into college (and by extension, self-selection into particular experiences), and direct and indirect effects, among other methodological challenges in identifying the relationships between college experiences and student learning and success. One particularly difficult challenge is identifying the conditional effects of experiences on student outcomes. Who benefits, or who does not, from particular experiences? There is growing evidence that the effects of educational experiences may differ among students, and in some cases, effects that may be positive for some students are negative for others (e.g., Mayhew et al., 2016; Seifert, Gillig, Hanson, Pascarella, & Blaich, 2014).

The most common methods of assessing conditional effects rely on group-level analyses (e.g., introducing interaction terms or conducting subgroup analyses). Yet, these methods do not provide a way to determine whether an experience has had a positive, negative, or neutral effect on an individual student. Examining individual-level change can help researchers and practitioners further understand the complexities of how educational experiences affect students. With this article we aim to build on the work on conditional effects in higher education (e.g., Seifert et al., 2014) to provide a way to assess meaningful individual-level change. We provide a theoretical framework for understanding why educational experiences might lead to positive or negative outcomes; discuss the challenges in assessing individual-level change; describe one method of assessing individual-level change; provide an example of how researchers might use this method to consider positive and negative outcomes for individual students; and discuss how this consideration might change the way we view college experiences.