Student Retention

Student retention is the area of research concerned with determining the forces that shape student persistence in institutions of higher education

Student retention is the area of research concerned with determining the forces that shape student persistence in institutions of higher education. The theoretical and empirical literature relating to factors and problems in the university setting involving student retention is reviewed here.

Every year, a substantial number of college students join the growing ranks of students who fail to complete their college education. Attrition may occur in a variety of manners, including those students who "flunk out", those who transfer to other institutions, those who switch courses within institutions, those who withdraw, and those who significantly reduce their workload.

Early theories on retention were rooted in psychology, focusing on personal, individual characteristics. Starting in the mid-seventies the emphasis began to shift to a more sociological focus, and more recently it has centered on the institutional context and its relationship to the students' integration. Unfortunately, too many studies tend to simply describe the differences between those students who leave and those who stay, while the best studies predict future behavior by explaining how these differences arise within the context of a specific institution.

One of the most notable models addressing the issue of retention is that of Tinto. The origin of Tinto's (1975) conceptual model is rooted in the foundation of Durkheim's (1897) suicide theory as well as Spady's (1970) model of the student dropout process. Spady (1971) elaborated on Durkheim's conclusions and subsequently outlined the presumed role that the social structure played in the retention process. Soon afterwards, Tinto, borrowing liberally from Spady's and Durkheim's conclusions, fine tuned the details and elaborated upon their work.

Tinto coordinated massive amounts of research on the theory of student retention, integration and departure, focusing primarily upon the role that the institution of higher education played in influencing the institution's academic and social systems. Of particular concern was the process of interaction between the students' attributes, skills and dispositions and students' departure. Tinto, in his college fit model, noted that the greater the congruence between the values, goals and attitudes of the students and those of the college, as well as between the students' capabilities and the colleges' demands, the more likely a student is to persist in college.

Essentially the model asserts that students come to college with certain background characteristics and initial commitments that influence how well he or she will "fit" into the academic and social environment of the institution. A good fit between the student and college has been credited with giving a college its unique characteristics. At the same time, the lack of a good institutional fit has been blamed for driving students away.

Bean and Metzner (1985) examined Tinto's theory in light of empirical studies on non-traditional students and proposed a new model of attrition for adult students. They determined that non-traditional students are distinguished from their traditional counterparts by their intense academic and vocational orientation to college. Therefore, according to this research, the traditional social environment of the campus is not nearly as important as the academic offerings. Interaction with faculty and peers are not of the same duration and intensity and therefore differ in their influence on attrition. Consequently, outside encouragement, from family and community, appear to replace on-campus support as a key to retention.

Earlier research, such as Astin's (1975) addressed these issues, in many ways, more thoroughly than they are addressed today. As research on persistence expanded in the 1970s, one of the factors that prompted increased attention to the "drop out problem" was college administrators and faculty increasing concerns about declining enrollments. To investigate these concerns, Astin conducted longitudinal research using national data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). Although his study did not yield a theoretical model, it did make several other contributions to the field of student persistence research. For instance, the longitudinal design of his study allowed Astin to identify a category of student called "stop out" that he operationally defined as "students who interrupt their undergraduate education for a relatively brief period and return to complete their degree".

In general terms, Astin's findings tend to support the propositions of Tinto's (1975) student integration model particularly as they relate to one of the persistence predictors "" student commitment to the goal of a college degree. For example, Astin (1975) like Tinto, found that students who aspired to a doctorate degree were least likely to drop out of college. Student aspiration to Ph.D. was an indicator of commitment to the goal of earning a college degree.

Another discovery of Astin's was that in times of enrollment decline, institutions often made access easier to postsecondary education. Increased access led to decreased student involvement in the educational process particularly in the socializing effects it produced. He noted that this fact perhaps held more consequence for traditional students than for nontraditional students.

The topic of student attrition continues to be a legitimate area of concern and investigation for institutions of higher education. After all, enrollments in institutions of higher education are on the decline, particularly among less selective and open-admissions institutions. This means that retaining an existing student is becoming less expensive than recruiting a new one.

While much research has been done to explore and contribute to our understanding of student attrition at higher education institutions, there is still much of the variance in student attrition and persistence behavior left to be explained. Researchers' efforts to identify clear patterns of student "drop out" or "stop out" behavior and explain retention and attrition rates have remained difficult. Until those factors influencing student departure are better understood, retention efforts are likely to be unsuccessful. Meanwhile, those in higher education will continue to be called upon to not only share, but to explain retention and attrition at their campuses.

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