Retention Theory and Causes of Student Attrition

This list of peer-reviewed articles is available to members of our University community and beyond as a resource on the national literature on retention. We are committed to maintaining this list and adding to it in the future. Please send recommendations of articles to include to For additional articles on encouraging student success, please visit Literature on Student Sucess.

The information below comes directly from the referenced book or article unless acknowledged otherwise.

Abstract/Points of Interest

Braxton, J.M., Doyle, W.R., Hartley III, H.V., Hirschy, A.S., Jones, W.A., & McLendon, M.K. (2014). Rethinking College Student Retention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The authors highlight policies and recommendations to support first-year persistence of students enrolled in residential colleges and universities, as a result of empirical study.

Braxton, J.M., Doyle, W.R., Hartley III, H.V., Hirschy, A.S., Jones, W.A., & McLendon, M.K. (2014). State Policy and Student Success. In Rethinking College Student Retention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The main question of this chapter is how can higher education be "redesigned to ensure that sudent success is seen as a joint responsibility among faculty, administrators, and state-level policymakers." The authors provide recommendations to policymakers and campus leaders that can be implemented over a two-three year period including focusing policy efforts on increasing the number of open-access institutions, increasing the number of and early exposure to tenure-line faculty on-campus, investing in campus programming that are known to increase completion, and aligning high school exit exams with college-level placement exams.

Braxton, J.M., Doyle, W.R., Hartley III, H.V., Hirschy, A.S., Jones, W.A., & McLendon, M.K.,(2014). Recommendations for Institutional Policy and Practice. In Rethinking College Student Retention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The authors recommend an integrated design approach that encompasses: 1) institutional policy and practice must have the support of key on-campus constituents; 2) some student departure may be in the best interest of the student and university, but limiting unnecessary student departure stands as the goal of institutional policies and practices, and 3) institutional assessment of the success of policies and practices created to increase persistence and graduation. The chapter includes recommendations for central administration, enrollment management, faculty development, residence life, and student club and orientation leaders.

Braxton, J.M., Doyle, W.R., Hartley III, H.V., Hirschy, A.S., Jones, W.A., & McLendon, M.K. (2014). The Revision of Tinto's Theory for Residential Colleges and Universities. In Rethinking College Student Retention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This chapter focuses on the relationship between social integration and persistence. The authors analyzed Tinto's theory and identified possible sources that impact key components of the theory. The following propositions were found to be true: "(a) initial commitment to the goal of graduation from college affects the level of social integration, (b) the greater the degree of social integration, the greater the level of subsequent commitment to the institution, (c) the initial level of institutional commitment affects the subsequent level of institutional commitment, (d) the initial level of commitment to college graduation from college affects the subsequent level of commitment to the goal of college graduation, and (e) the greater the level of subsequent commitment to the institution, the greater the likelihood of persistence in college. "

Ma, Y., & Cragg, K.M. (2013). So close, yet so far away: Early vs. late dropouts. Journal of College Student Retention, 14(4), 533-548.

Early and late dropouts should be recognized as more than one student population. Age, gender, ethnicity, and first-year college GPA influence early dropout, late dropout, and 6-year graduation. The majority of late dropouts did not matriculate at any college after dropping out based on National Student Clearinghouse records.

Raisman, N. (2013). The cost of college attrition at four-year colleges and universities. Retrieved from 1302_PolicyPerspectives.pdf.

A study of the relationship of attrition to revenues lost in four-year public, private, and for profit colleges and universities on an annual basis. University of Maryland, College Park had a calculated loss of about $17,430,086.07. Data was collected from colleges and universities directly, through IPEDS, the Educational Trust, college and university websites and reporting, as well as the College Board "Annual Survey of Colleges 2010".

Attewell, P., Heil, S., & Reisel, L. (2012). What is academic momentum? And does it matter? Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 34(1), 27-44.

The authors evaluated the relationship between academic momentum and degree attainment. It was found that a delay between high school and starting college and also attempting a low course load in the first semester, were associated with low degree completion, while attending summer school after freshman year is associated with significantly better graduation chances. The authors recommend assessing aid, tuition, and summer session policies to increase access to summer coursework and degree attainment.

Bichsel, J. (2012). Analytics in higher education: Benefits, barriers, progress, and recommendations. Retrieved from Educause Center for Applied Research website: Retrieved from /ERS1207/ers1207.pdf.

Analytics is used mostly in the areas of enrollment management, student progress, and institutional finance and budgeting. The authors found that "(a) analytics is widely viewed as important, but data use at most institutions is still limited to reporting, (b) analytics efforts should start by defining strategic questions and developing a plan to address those questions with data (c) analytics programs require neither perfect data nor the perfect data culture--they can and should be initiated when an institution is ready to make the investment and commitment (d) analytics programs are most successful when various constituents--institutional research, information technology, functional leaders, and executives--work in partnership, and (e) institutions should focus their investments on expertise, process, and policies before acquiring new tools or collecting additional data."

Robb, C. A., Moody, B., & Adbel-Ghany, M. (2012). College student persistence to degree: The burden of debt. Journal of College Student Retention, 12(4), 431-456.

The impact of financial aid on college persistence. Results suggested that "financial factors play a significant role in student persistence behavior as well as in student perceptions of debt. Controlling for demographic characteristics, as well as a number of key student factors, student loan debt, credit card use behavior, and the presence of other debts, had a significant impact on whether students reported ever reducing credit hours for financial reasons, whether students ever dropped out for financial reasons, and the extent to which students reported difficulty persisting due to the psychological burden of student loan debt and consumer debt."

Cuseo, J., & Farnum, T. (2011). Seven myths about student retention.
Retrieved from documents/SevenMythsAboutStudent Retention.pdf.

Student persistence depends on both student and institutional effort. Retention was found to be higher at institutions where students: "(a) are provided with accurate information and clear lines of communication about institutional purposes, policies, and procedures, (b) are given opportunities to participate in organizational decision-making, and (c) have experiences with administration that support rather than impede their progress. " A majority of students who drop out are in good academic standing.

Tinto, V. (2010). From theory to action: Exploring the institutional conditions for student retention (pp. 51-89). In J. C. Smart (Ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Volume 25. University of Chicago.

"Though access to higher education in the United States has increased over the past several decades, similar increases in college completion have not followed suit. Despite years of effort, we have, in large measure, been unable to translate the promise increased access affords to students, in particular those of low-income and underserved backgrounds, into the reality of college completion especially as measured by 4-year degrees. That this is the case is reflective in part of our inability to translate what we have learned from research on student retention into a reasonable set of guidelines for the types of actions and policies institution must put into place to increase rates of college completion."

Harris, D.N., and Goldrick-Rab, S. (2010). The (Un)Productivity of American Higher Education: From Cost Disease to Cost-Effectiveness. Working Paper Series, La Follette School Working Paper No. 2010-023.

The authors found that the intervention with the highest effectiveness cost ratio was using call centers. These call centers operate by "literally making phone calls to students who apply, but do not register, register but do not show up for class, show up for class initially but then stop attending, and so on." Call centers can then direct students to on-campus services.

Bettinger, E.P. and Long, B.T. (2009). Addressing the needs of underprepared students in higher education. Does college remediation work? Journal of Human Resources, 44(3), 736-771.

"This paper examines the effects of remediation using a unique data set of over 28,000 students....The results suggest that students in remediation are more likely to persist in college in comparison to students with similar backgrounds who were not required to take the courses."

Brier, E.M., Hirschy, A.S., and Braxton, J.M. (2008). The Strategic Retention Initiative: Theory-Based Practice to Reduce College Student Departure. About Campus, 13(4), 18-20.

This initiative involves having a dean, director, or faculty member contacting each first-year student during the fourth or fifth week of the fall term with a follow-up call made during the spring semester. The purpose of the call is to provide support and better understand a student's academic and social integration thus far on campus.

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

The authors developed a framework to guide institutions toward greater student success. The Inventory for Student Engagement and Success (ISES) was developed to help institutions assess how students succeed within a particular institution.

St. John, E.P., Cabrera, A.F., Nora, A. and Asker, E.H. (2000). Economic Influences on Persistence Reconsidered: How Can Finance Research Inform the Reconceptualization of Persistence Models? In Braxton, J.M., Reworking the Student Departure Puzzle. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

The authors found that student persistence likely results if a student perceives that the benefits of attending a particular college or university exceed the costs of attendance.

Astin, A.W. (1999). Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 40(5) 518-529.

Astin's theory of student involvement defines student involvement as the "amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience." The theory empahasizes student involvement and the "active participation of the student in the learning process."

Berger, J.B. and Braxton, J.M. (1998). Revising Tinto's Interactionalist Theory of Student Departure Through Theory Elaboration: Examining the Role of Organizational Attributes in the Persistence Process. Research in Higher Education, 39(2), 103-119.

The authors examined the relationship between organizational attributes and student retention through the constructs of the revised version of Tinto's interactionalist theory. The authors found that student perceptions of institutional communication of academic and social policies, fairnesss in policy and rule enforcement, and student participation in decision-making regarding academic and social policies positively influences social integration.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Puts emphasis on the student's perception of their interactions with the academic and social communities of a given college or university.

Cabrera, A.F., Stampen, J.O., and Hansen, W. (1990). Exploring the Effects of Ability to Pay on Persistence in College. Review of Higher Education, 13(3), 303-336.

The authors studied the relationship between ability to pay and college persistence. They found that ability to pay has a direct effect on college persistence and ability to pay can lower the impact of a student's academic aspirations and commitment.

Astin, A.W. (1999). Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 40(5) 518-529.

Astin's theory of student involvement defines student involvement as the "amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience." The theory empahasizes student involvement and the "active participation of the student in the learning process."

Bean, J. & Metzner, B. S. (1985). A conceptual model of nontraditional undergraduate student attrition. Review of Educational Research, 55(3), 485-540.

"Older, part-time, and commuter students have composed an increasingly larger portion of college student bodies. The reasons why these students drop out of school are not well understood. The purpose of this paper is to describe the rise in nontraditional enrollments, define the nontraditional undergraduate student, and develop a conceptual model of the attrition process for these students. The chief difference between the attrition process of traditional and nontraditional students is that nontraditional students are more affected by the external environment than by the social integration variables affecting traditional student attrition."

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