Student retention is at the forefront of higher education issues today. Estimates suggest 40% of college students do not finish their degrees (Porter, 1990), and of those who do not finish the degree process, an overwhelming number (75%) leave within the first two years of enrollment (Tinto, 1987). Almost 60% of college dropouts leave before the start of the second year (Tinto, 1996). Furthermore, more than 25% of all students who enter a four-year school leave by the end of the first year (Adelman, 2004), as they are “unable to seek and acquire tools for success” (Salinitri, 2005). With statistics like these, it’s clear higher education needs to focus on retention issues in order to meet the needs of its students more effectively.

Tinto’s retention models (1975, 1987, 1993) suggests the pre-entry attributes are a key element to student retention in higher education, while Bean & Metzner (1985) share similar perspectives (high school performance, for example) on background and defining variables for non-traditional students. Students’ lives before they begin college have a great impact on their college experience and their pathway towards degree completion. Understanding how these pre-entry attributes affect students in the 2000s is a key for higher education’s evolution.

In his longitudinal model, Tinto argues that individuals enter institutions of higher learning with a range of family and community backgrounds, bringing with them a variety of personal attributes, skills, and value orientations, and varying types of precollege educational experiences and achievements – each having a direct impact upon departure from college. These pre-entry attributes, in Tinto’s model, are extremely important in determining the future of the student’s college experience. Likewise, Astin (1997) posited four key variables in retention: high school grades, admissions test scores, race and gender. The first three fall under Tinto’s framework for pre-entry attributes that impact retention; they present a firm place to start. High school grades reflect prior schooling, admissions test scores reflect skills and abilities, and race is one aspect (albeit a challenging one for this study) of family background to consider. Since this study is not about race, however, it is important to streamline ethnicity into the family background analysis in a cultural and social way – avoiding the “race” exploration due to study limitations. Gender is a factor, but classifying it as a “pre-entry attribute” is a stretch.

However much agreed upon by scholars and data, it is possible these theories are not permanent, and since a large amount of time has passed since Tinto’s original publication of his framework, theories may not account for the changes in the student body since the original theoretical development of ideas: “… traditional notions of the student identity as measured by studies of student life are fast becoming seriously dated” (McInnis, 2004). The expansion of the non-traditional student base has grown tremendously, the shift in society has produced a new generation of college students, and the influx of international students has changed the landscape as well. As Reason (2003) states, “the rapidly changing demographics of the undergraduate student population suggest that we update our understanding of variables that predict undergraduate student retention”.

Taking a small but fresh look at college students today and analyzing their self-perception of pre-entry attributes can help higher education scholars, administrators and faculty get a firmer grasp on what it takes to retain a student today at a four-year public university. The data for this study provides a deep look at the retention perspectives and experiences of college women in California, and that provides interesting implications for a gender study of the modern college experience for women. Money – perhaps traditionally thought to be the province of men – is just as much a concern to women in the 21st century. Combined with the already-existing challenges of potential motherhood, college women now face the multiple challenges of both traditional gender roles. Since this was an unintended result of the study, it creates an opening for further study in the specific area.

As the student responses suggested when asked what their colleges could do to help alleviate attrition, universities (and higher education, in general) need to work more closely with governments and donors to provide significantly more-accessible financial packages to students who need them. While this is not a new idea, the need still exists. As tuition and cost-of-living expenses rise in a troubled economy, more students will face tough choices on staying in school due to financial liabilities. It is a poor reflection of society when qualified and eager students have to cease their enrollment simply because they don’t have the money to afford the education they are qualified to receive. Another option is to streamline the course offerings and program requirements, so students can see the relevance of the coursework to their degree and understand the value-added impact of the courses they are taking at such a high cost. This doesn’t mean making it easier for students, of course. It just means making the pathway to graduation more accessible financially for students who are truly-focused on degree completion.

Working more closely with K-12 entities also can help with retention. While campuses struggle to increase enrollment revenue by admitting partial qualifiers, this hurts the long-term retention rates as institutions like San Jose State University. Especially for public universities, there must be closer alignment with government and K-12 in order to ensure more students are prepared through prior schooling and already-developed skills/abilities necessary for college success. When students graduate from high school, they expect that diploma to mean something. Too often, the students get to college to find out they don’t know anything about what it takes to succeed in higher education. More collaborative efforts can alleviate this current challenge.

These are grandiose suggestions, in a sense, for such a limited study, but the implications of the study are clear: financial pressures and resulting academic roadblocks are leading to a lack of student retention in higher education in public universities. Quality of the education doesn’t have to suffer for retention rates to rise, but higher education does need to bridge some gaps in cost affordability.

(Aforementioned data and full study analysis available upon request.)

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Adelman, C. (2004). Principal indicators of student academic histories in postsecondary education, 1972-2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Astin, A. W (1997). How ‘good’ is your institution’s retention rate? Research in Higher Education, 38, 647-658.

Bean, J. P., & Metzner, B. S. (1985). A Conceptual Model of Nontraditional Undergraduate Student Attrition. Review of Educational Research, 55(4), 485-540.

McInnis, Craig. (2004). Studies of Student Life: an overview. European Journal of Education, 39(4).

Porter, O. F. (1990). Undergraduate completion and persistence at four-year colleges and universities: Detailed Findings. Washington, DC: National Insand Universities.

Reason, R. D. (2003). Student Variables that Predict Retention: Recent Research and New Developments. NASPA Journal, 40(4).

Salinitri, G. (2005). The Effects of Formal Mentoring on the Retention Rates for First-Year, Low Achieving Students. Canadian Journal of Education, 28(4), 853-873.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (1996). Reconstructing the first year of college. Planning for Higher Education, 25, 1-6.

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