swiss cheese of success: a concept model for persistence

The “Swiss cheese model” is a risk analysis model used by engineers, aviation specialists, and cybersecurity experts. The idea is that even the best-designed human systems (inevitably) operate like Swiss cheese—mostly sound, but with holes here and there. For the most part, systems operate as predicted. But when the holes in a stack of systems all line up a certain way, an unexpected event can slip through.

For the last three weeks, our team (myself, Shelly, and Susi) has been conducting research into how first-generation Americans in Austin perceive the role and importance of post-secondary education. One stakeholder, a student advisor at a post-traditional college completion organization, had especially salient points to make about barriers and influences on student completion: that students consistently name “relationship with my advisor” as the most important variable in their persistence; and that job changes are the number one factor in throwing students off their planned trajectory.

In our conversations with young first-generation Americans, many participants have also centered the role of family expectations, high school support networks, and legal documentation/financial aid access as determining factors re: their educational opportunities.

As we began to map out concept models for what we were hearing about persistence, influencers, and barriers, we found ourselves sketching something similar to the “Swiss cheese model”—a look at what can happen when young first-generation American students attempt to persist toward a degree. While this type of model is often used to predict negative events, we found something compelling about reworking it to show a positive situation.

In this light, the model also suggests just how hard it is for students attempting persistence to succeed.


Here, the “slices” represent external factors that impact behavior and opportunity.

The red lines represent “stopped out” student pathways, those who may sail through to success in some areas only to be met by barriers in others.

The blue line represents those students who successfully navigate each influencer/barrier in the path toward their educational goals.

As you can see from the concept model, persistence requires a precise alignment of the right conditions at the right time. And within the larger context of post-traditional students who attempt to persist, successful completion is rare, and not exclusively (or even primarily) due to a lack of individual effort or responsible studentship.

This model can describe all post-traditional students, to some degree—first-generation American students aren’t alone in feeling the pressures of family or a lack of mentorship or the necessity of holding down a job. But as we continue to conduct interviews, we suspect that the family and culture slices in particular may yield rich nuances and insights into the unique experiences of first-generation American young adults in Texas.

More to come…