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Introduction to Student Persistence: Strategies and Factors for Student Success

2021-04-14T21:41:02+00:00April 14, 2021|

College enrollment has been on a downward trend for the past decade, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this situation. With more schools vying for fewer students, higher ed leaders are focusing more intently on what it takes to keep students engaged and – ultimately – enrolled. What has been born from this effort has since sparked efforts to help influence institutional approaches to student persistence.

The model for student retention is shifting

With a changing student body and additional disruption in the realm of course delivery, student persistence models have evolved. It is no longer enough to build a bright and lively campus with dedicated program support centers. Modern students need to connect their educational experience with their career, engage in real-world practice and complete work according to their own schedule. Students who find their needs unmet are also finding it easier to simply transfer or drop out.

As the student population modernizes and changes, so too must each institution’s approach to persistence. This is not to say that traditional models have gone sour; there are still plenty of uses for those models where traditional students are concerned. However, in today’s digital and competitive landscape, the schools that can offer both will have the greatest advantage, being able to retain their students through graduation – and potentially keep them engaged beyond that.

In this article, we’ll provide a high-level review of traditional and contemporary student persistence models, as well as actionable strategies to help higher ed leaders retain face-to-face and online students – at both the bachelor’s and graduate level.

Traditional persistence models

Below is a short overview of several influential models that have informed the way schools historically approached student persistence efforts.

The Undergraduate Dropout Process Model

One of the first major models that emerged from the early days of student persistence research came from William G. Spady’s Dropouts from Higher Education: An Interdisciplinary Review and Synthesis. In it, he surmised that institutions had a large role to play in student persistence, and that rather than just one, there were two variables, or systems, that could affect whether a student would stay at the institution: academic and social.

Moreover, Spady noted there were at least two factors in each of those systems that influence a student. Where academic factors were concerned, Spady broke them down into grades and intellectual development. As for factors to support the social system, he identified friendship and normative congruence. The factors he recognized have since been expanded, contorted, stretched and changed a number of times, but his largest influence was in giving the institution responsibility for persistence. Later, Spady’s model would serve as a launching point for other educational theories, namely Tinto’s Model of Institutional Departure (1975, 1993) and Bean’s Student Attrition Model (1980, 1982).

Figure 1: Spady’s Undergraduate Dropout Process Model (Aljohani 2016)

The Institutional Departure Model

Vincent Tinto’s Institutional Departure Model, which was drafted in 1975 but did not reach its final version until 1993, builds on Spady’s, but ultimately places a bit more accountability on the student as they build a relationship with the school. According to Tinto’s theory of student departure, the social aspect of persistence is demarcated by the student’s ability to interact with the social and academic systems at the institution.

What Tinto realized is students bring associations and expectations with them in their first year. He mapped out a process that begins with the student’s prior associations but allows for those to be weakened or strengthened based on the way the student is incorporated into the institutional community. Successful incorporation might find those goals changed by the time the student has shed their connections to old communities in lieu of their new community. In the case that student associations and expectations are less malleable, students may find themselves at a higher risk of dropping out.

Figure 2: Tinto’s Institutional Departure Model (Aljohani (2016)

The Student Attrition Model

In 1980, John P. Bean put forth his own model for student persistence that he called The Synthesis of a Theoretical Model of Student Attrition, or more succinctly, the Student Attrition Model. He, too, built on the work of his predecessors, but differentiated himself by arguing that the motivations for departure are similar to those seen in an employee unsatisfied with their career or employer. Where obvious differences occurred between student and employee, such as pay, Bean found it useful to substitute equitable variables from the collegiate experience, such as GPA, student development and career relevance.

Later, in a revised version of his student attrition theory, Bean would include a set of four instrumental variables: background, organizational, environmental and attitudinal, and outcome variables. What he ultimately found was that these institutional factors played the largest role in student persistence, and that by remixing the variables, his model could be made to apply to nearly any industry.

Figure 3: The Student Attrition Model (Aljohani 2016)

Contemporary/online student persistence models

Below is a short overview of several evolving and emerging models that are beginning to inform the way schools approach student retention efforts in a digital age.

The Nontraditional Undergraduate Student Attrition Model

Shortly after publishing the Student Attrition Model, Bean revisited student persistence with help from Barbara Metzner and developed a model for nontraditional students, and more specifically, “commuter” students. What they understood was that the institutional integration and culture-building importance is not elevated to the same importance as it would be with traditional students. For the commuter student, environmental and external factors were the main forces acting against persistence.

Like Bean’s previous student attrition theory, the Nontraditional Model outlines four sets of variables: academic performance, intent to leave, background and environmental factors.


Figure 4: The Nontraditional Undergraduate Student Attrition Model (Aljohani 2016)

The Self-Determination Theory of Student Persistence

Using student motivation as the research driver, Kuan-Chung Chen and Syh-Jong Jang applied the theory of self-determination to persistence in online and distance learning. The underpinning of the self-determination theory — which has found its way into politics, religion, healthcare and similarly influential parts of society — is that individuals have three basic needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, we experience a heightened sense of self and increased potential for personal growth. It is not hard, then, to see how this might be adapted to online student persistence.

These three pillars of self-determination can be applied to the elements of distance education, such as flexible learning, computer-mediated communication and social interaction, and technical proficiency. What Chen and Jang eventually conclude is that supporting an online student’s three basic needs positively affected their self-determination. Additionally, online student persistence can be influenced by course factors and support services.

Figure 5: The Hypothesized Model of Self-Determination Theory (Chen & Jang 2010)

4 key factors that impact student persistence

Each of the previous models uses specific factors to measure persistence among students. These factors might be broadly categorized as social, academic or background. Each of these factors can be more narrowly defined by carving out individual influences. In the case of Spady’s model, the academic category is broken into influences such as grades and intellectual development. Even now, Spady’s initial classifications are consistent with the influences seen in contemporary models, albeit somewhat unremarkably, given their broad nature.

What has emerged recently are new technologies and modalities that disrupt the theoretical models constructed by Spady, Tinto and Bean. Today’s students have different expectations of their education as well as different financial and social concerns relevant to their schooling.

The categories that follow deliver a high-level view of the four most common persistence factors and influencers from the major models.

GradesNormative CongruenceFinancialMotivation
Intellectual GrowthFriendshipEthnicitySelf-Perception
Uneven SkillsInstitutional FitGeographicBehaviors
Academic PlanInstitutional SupportDemographicProblem-Solving Skill

1.      Academic

The genesis of the academic model lies in Spady’s initial research but has widened to include uneven skills and academic planning. In his research on student retention, Robert Sternberg surmised that students who enter college without a well-rounded education (especially in STEM areas) face an uphill climb from day one. Part of the issue is a reliance on standardized aptitude tests, which he notes only serve as accurate success forecasters 25 percent of the time. The knowledge needed for success at a particular institution, therefore, is not known.

Similarly, the lack of an academic plan contributes to a feeling of academic displacement for many students. This is made most clear with students who fail to recognize the connection between their coursework and a future career. In the instances when such a plan is formalized, students have been found to be significantly more likely to persist.

As for grades and intellectual growth, Spady’s initial findings ring true: A student who achieves high marks and experiences intellectual growth is more likely to continue.

2.      Social

Where face-to-face students are concerned — and in the traditional campus setting — there is significant data to suggest that social factors are a leading influence on student persistence. Spady’s idea of normative congruence fits well with more recent research into how friendships and student communities help learners locate their place within the institution.

Institutional support itself comes in two forms. The first regards the relationship between students and faculty. In many cases — especially in graduate settings or with freshmen — this relationship has a key role in supporting student persistence. Creating these types of institutional bonds should be a primary goal for schools concerned about attrition.

The second comes from the way schools support student goals and lifestyles. Those could come in the form of either dedicated learning centers or extracurricular clubs. Both are instrumental in forging a sense of community and addressing the need for students to feel supported.

As for institutional fit, research suggests that when accurate student profiles can be built (most likely by the admissions staff and director of admissions), institutions can better support the needs of the student and promote persistence.

3.      Circumstantial

Unsurprisingly, a student’s personal circumstances influence student retention quite a bit. Background information such as ethnicity and geographic and socioeconomic indicators continue to show ties to student persistence. Bean used background as a category to wrangle these factors together but made no mention of financial constraints.

With financial factors leading the pack, challenging personal circumstances can place significant strain and additional stress on students. What is most discouraging is that, in the face of financial difficulty, penny-wise students may make the decision to drop out — even when taking on debt and persisting would likely be a pathway toward long-term financial improvement. Fortunately, many colleges are finding creative ways to alleviate some of the financial burden by offering online or alternative pathways to a degree.

4.      Personal

While it is true that more emphasis has been placed on each student’s individual indicators in recent years, their presence has been acknowledged since the early days of persistence research. Certainly, in Spady’s as well as Tinto’s early models, it is evident that some of the personal concerns – which include demographic or individual characteristics like age, gender, race, income, cognitive skills, self-discipline, motivation and more – overlap into social concerns. By carving out a new category for these concerns, though, schools can help address them in a more creative and effective manner.

Student persistence benefits students and universities

Creating learning experiences and environments – both in-person and online – that deliver the four factors that influence student persistence is not easy. But it’s worth the extra work to avoid losing students before they graduate.

For help developing courses and programs that accommodate an ever-growing variety of life situations and learning styles, Collegis Education offers faculty and course development services, learning technology consulting and content licensing to help promote student success.

Let our experts help you find the solutions to overcome your student persistence challenges.

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Jonathan Kinsey

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