The Ill-Structured Problem of College Student Departure

Overview of the Volume

Intended Audience

Tinto’s Interactionalist Theory

Tinto’s Interactionalist Theory

An Empirical Assessment of Tinto

Propositions Receiving Strong Support

Explanations for Unanticipated Academic Integration Findings

Tinto’s Theory: Revise or Abandon?

Toward a Revision of Tinto’s Theory for Residential Colleges and Universities

Influences on Social Integration

Underlying Conceptual Orientation of the Six Influences

Tinto’s Theory Revisited in Residential Colleges and Universities

Implications for Racial or Ethnic Minority Students

Student Departure in Commuter Colleges and Universities

Sixteen Propositions: Elements of a Theory of Student Departure in Commuter Institutions

Formulating a Theory of Student Departure in Commuter Colleges and Universities

Exemplary Student Retention Programs

Sources of Retention Programs

Selecting Exemplary Retention Programs

Nine Exemplary Retention Programs

Reducing Institutional Rates of Departure

An Overarching Recommendation

Powerful Institutional Levers of Action

Residential Colleges and Universities

Commuter Colleges and Universities

Reducing the Departure of Racial or Ethnic Minority Students

Conclusions and Recommendations for Scholarship


Recommendations for Further Scholarship

Closing Thoughts


Name Index

Subject Index

About the Authors


Advisory Board


The ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Series is sponsored by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), which provides an editorial advisory board of ASHE members.

Kenneth Feldman

SUNY at Stony Brook

Anna Ortiz

California State University, Long Beach

James Fairweather

Michigan State University

Jerlando Jackson

University of Wisconsin

Elaine El-Khawas

George Washington University

Melissa Anderson

University of Minnesota

Doug Toma

University of Pennsylvania

Amy Metcalfe

University of Arizona

Carol Colbeck

Pennsylvania State University

This Issue’s Consulting Editors and Review Panelists

John Bean

Indiana University–Bloomington

Deborah Carter

Indiana University

Tim Gallineau

Buffalo State College

Daryl Smith

Claremont Graduate University

Executive Summary

College student departure poses a long-standing problem to colleges and universities that attracts the interest of both scholars and practitioners. Approximately 45 percent of students enrolled in two-year colleges depart during their first year, and approximately one out of every fourth student departs from a four-year college or university (American College Testing Program, 2001). These departure rates varied little between 1987 and 2001 (American College Testing Program, 2001). These rates of departure negatively affect the stability of institutional enrollments, budgets, and the public perception of the quality of colleges and universities. Braxton, Sullivan, and Johnson (1997) call this problem the “departure puzzle.”

The departure puzzle has been the object of empirical attention for more than seventy years (Braxton, 2000a). During the past twenty-five years, considerable progress on understanding this puzzle has occurred (Braxton, 2000a). Several notable published works speak to such progress (Braxton, 2000c; Braxton, Sullivan, and Johnson, 1997; Tinto, 1975, 1987, 1993). These works focus on Tinto’s interactionalist theory of college student departure, a theory that holds paradigmatic status as a framework for understanding college student departure (Braxton and Hirschy, forthcoming). Braxton, Sullivan, and Johnson (1997) assessed the empirical internal consistency of Tinto’s theory and found it needed serious revision. Such a recommendation sparked the development of Reworking the Student Departure Puzzle (Braxton, 2000c), an edited volume that includes chapters that propose theoretical approaches to revising Tinto’s interactionalist theory and chapters that offer new theoretical approaches to understanding student departure.

Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure encompasses the need both to seriously revise Tinto’s theory and to propose other theories. We note in this volume differences in the validity of Tinto’s theory to account for departure from residential and commuter collegiate institutions. Accordingly, we advance a serious revision of Tinto’s theory to account for student departure in residential colleges and universities and postulate a theory of college student departure in commuter colleges and universities.

We engaged in the process of inductive theory construction for both theoretical developments. Inductive theory construction begins with the findings of empirical research (Wallace, 1971). From these findings, new concepts, patterns of understandings, and generalizations emerge. In other words, a conceptual factor analysis of these findings occurs (Braxton, 2000b). This process parallels the open-coding process used in grounded theory construction (Strauss and Corbin, 1990). These new concepts, generalizations, and understandings provide the foundation for the generation or revision of a theory.

We also discuss the implications of these theoretical formulations for racial or ethnic minority students. This effort to understand the manner in which students from different backgrounds experience the college student departure process looms important because the rate of departure for racial and ethnic minority students differs appreciably from those of Caucasian students.

In addition to seeking an understanding of student departure in residential and commuter colleges and universities, we also strive to reduce unnecessary student departure. Toward this end, we provide descriptions of exemplary campus-based programs in the literature that are designed to reduce student departure. We also put forth recommendations for implementation by individual colleges and universities to reduce institutional rates of departure.

What Changes in Policy and Practice Are Recommended?

We advance six conclusions. First, scholars and practitioners should seriously question the paradigmatic stature of Tinto’s interactionalist theory and instead should focus on middle-range theories of college student departure. Second, although both of the theories we discuss in this volume seek to explain departure in different types of colleges and universities, both of them include constructs reflective of economic, organizational, psychological, and sociological orientations toward student departure. The ill-structured nature of the problem of college student departure necessitates such a multidisciplinary perspective (Braxton and Mundy, 2001–2002). Third, both of the theories we describe meet three criteria for a good theory suggested by Chafetz (1978). Fourth, the academic dimension plays a significant role in the departure process in commuter institutions, whereas the social dimension performs a predominant role in residential colleges and universities. Fifth, an upper limit on the improvement of student retention rates in commuter colleges and universities exists. Sixth, no template of a successful retention program exists. In addition to these conclusions, we also suggest directions for further research on the college student departure process.

In Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure, we also advance recommendations for policies and practices designed to reduce unnecessary institutional student departure. We advance an overarching recommendation and a set of specific recommendations for institutional policy and practice that take the form of powerful levers of institutional action. In the overarching recommendation, we maintain that institutional efforts to reduce student departure should use an integrated design approach. By integrated design, we mean that all institutional policies and practices developed to reduce student departure are intentional and require coordination to ensure that guidelines for the development of such policies and practice are steadfastly followed by designated institutional officers. We advance seven guidelines that an integrated design approach should follow.

The specific recommendations for policy and practice that we present take the form of many small levers of action directed toward the goal of reducing institutional student departure. We characterize these levers of action as “powerful” because they flow from research findings reviewed in this volume and adhere to one or more of Tinto’s three principles of effective retention (Tinto, 1993). We offer recommendations tailored specifically for residential colleges and universities and for commuter colleges and universities. In addition, we advance recommendations for implementation in both residential and commuter collegiate institutions: (1) financial aid should be awarded to students demonstrating financial need; (2) individual colleges and universities must make commitment to the welfare of their students an abiding concern; and (3) institutional integrity should be an enduring concern of individual colleges or universities.

The marked difference between the departure rates of racial or ethnic minority students and white Caucasian students necessitates the development of approaches to reducing their departure rates. Although the recommendations offered in Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure should foster the retention of students from racial or ethnic minority groups, the difference in departure rates suggests the need for additional remedies. Accordingly, we offer the following recommendations: (1) colleges and universities must enroll and retain a critical mass of racial or ethnic minority students; (2) colleges and universities should embrace a diverse student body, reinforced by inviting speakers, holding programs, and conducting workshops that honor the history and cultures of different racial or ethnic groups on campus; and (3) colleges and universities should implement Tierney’s intervention model for at-risk students (2000).

Who Is the Intended Audience of This Report?

Academic and student affairs administrators seeking research-based approaches to understanding and reducing college student departure will profit from reading this volume. Scholars of the college student experience will also find this volume of value in defining new thrusts in research on the college student departure process. The theoretical perspectives found in “Tinto’s Interactionalist Theory,” “Toward a Revision of Tinto’s Theory in Residential Colleges and Universities,” and “Student Departure in Commuter Colleges and Universities” will fit the interests of scholars of college student departure. Academic and student affairs administrators will find the implications for policy and practice found in “Exemplary Student Retention Programs,” “Reducing Institutional Rates of Departure,” and “Conclusions and Recommendations for Scholarship” useful to their efforts to reduce their institution’s rate of student departure.


Retention of college students remains one of the key challenges and problems for higher education. Approximately 50 percent of students leave higher education—an issue that policymakers have become concerned about. Why is it such an important issue, and why should you invest the time to carefully review this monograph? As funding for higher education diminishes, maintaining students is key to effective enrollment management. Over the next decade, enrollment management will take a more prominent role on campuses, and retention committees will be formed to avoid loss of revenues. In addition, policymakers are setting benchmarks for retention, asking campuses to become responsible for decreasing attrition and promoting students’ success.

Although many administrators will first think about retention in terms of funding and accountability, just as important is the moral commitment to students. Once students drop out of college, they may decide never to return, and their life opportunities may forever be constrained. Therefore, student departure is connected to the development of human potential. Individuals who do not continue may lead vastly different lives from those they would lead if they had completed their course of study. Last, as a developed nation, our success has been tied to a large college-educated workforce. Retention is an issue of importance for individuals (future opportunities), for institutions (financial success, accountability, and moral commitment to a supportive environment), and for the nation that strives to develop a workforce and citizenry to support the future. Few issues could be judged so important to the future of higher education and society.

Another reason that retention has taken on such prominence is a change in philosophy about our responsibility to students. Previously if students dropped out, it was related to their failure, because students had different abilities. Within a talent development model, which has become more prevalent on college campuses, it is believed that all students can succeed with the proper support. Retention is about developing a climate that is conducive to students as well as helping students to make appropriate choices that make them successful.

Retention has received a great deal of attention in the literature and from researchers. Yet it is a complex problem and has been labeled the “departure puzzle” by Braxton, Sullivan, and Johnson (1997). Therefore, a book that summarizes the research from the last thirty years is needed to help professionals understand how to examine and develop solutions for their campuses. This book contributes to our knowledge in several important ways. It synthesizes the various critiques of early models of retention that were developed among white, affluent 18- to 22-year-olds on residential campuses that had limited generalizability and applicability. Over the last thirty years, the early retention models have been challenged and revised several times. In addition, this book proposes new models for nonresidential students and students from diverse backgrounds. One of the major strengths of the monograph is that it acknowledges that there are still many gaps in our understanding that need examination. Any complex problem will need to be explored as new challenges and issues emerge. This book does not suggest that we will ever finally figure out the retention puzzle, but we can become as informed as possible and make evidence-based decisions for improving campus environments and meeting our obligations to individuals and the nation.

Adrianna J. Kezar

Series Editor