ERIC Identifier: ED393510
Publication Date: 1996-04-00
Author: Brawer, Florence B.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges Los Angeles CA.

Retention-Attrition in the Nineties. ERIC Digest.

Concern about retention and attrition rates in higher education have increased over the years. While the statistics remain fairly constant, approximately 50 percent of the freshmen enrolled in colleges and universities drop out before completing their programs. Efforts to identify and treat potential dropouts have grown considerably.

This Digest updates earlier studies by concentrating on ERIC documents of the 1990s. It discusses the types of students who take early leave of their programs as compared with those who remain, the reasons why students leave and devotes special attention to intervention strategies that some colleges offer in their attempts to encourage retention.


Studies investigating retention and attrition of students in community colleges gather data on student demographics in order to discover the typology of students who are likely to remain in school and those who are at risk of dropping out. Many studies in this area attempt to discover and pin-point the characteristics of persisters and non-persisters. Moore (1995) and Windham (1994) found that full-time attendance at the college is the most prevalent characteristic of persisters. Interestingly, the most prevalent characteristic among studies of non-persisters is part-time attendance (Feldman, 1993; Price, 1993). San Juan College in Mexico found that in 1991 and 1992, Fall to Fall persistence rates for part-time degree seeking students were 42 percent and 35 percent as compared to 59 percent and 46 percent for full-timers (Moore, 1995). Feldman (1993), Windham (1994), Price (1993) and Lanni (1992) also reported a higher dropout rate among part-time students.

Age as a defining characteristic shows conflicting reports in the research. Typically, studies report persisters to be younger students and conversely non-persisters to be older students (Windham, 1994; Price, 1993). However, an investigation of pre-enrollment variables as predictors of one-year retention of 1,140 first-time students at one community college found the risk of dropping out was associated with young students between 20-24 years old (Feldman, 1993). Conversely, Mohammadi (1994) in a study at Patrick Henry Community College in Virginia found attrition rates after one year to be higher for those students in the age ranges of 23-35 and 45-50. Other attributes found to influence students' decision to leave the college before completing their program or degree include: full-time employment, low grade-point average, being a member of an ethnic minority other than Asian, family obligations, financial concerns, and female gender (Bonham & Luckie, 1993; Lewallen, 1993).


Identifying the characteristics of persisters and non-persisters is a difficult task. Focusing on intervention strategies represents an alternative way of approaching retention and attrition and in the long-run may have a greater impact. Intervention strategies in which colleges engage take on a variety of styles and types such as orientation and mentoring programs, and multiple strategy approaches.


These types of programs are one of the most common intervention strategies. They have been found to provide students with information essential to their academic socialization: (1) descriptions of college program offerings; (2) the college's expectations for students; (3) information about assistance and services for examining interests, values, and abilities; (4) encouragement to establish working relationships with faculty; (5) information about services that help with adjustment to college; and (6) financial aid information (Coll and VonSeggern, 1991). Glass and Garrett (1995), in a study of four North Carolina community colleges, found that completion of an orientation program during the first term of enrollment promotes and improves student performance regardless of age, gender, race, major, entrance exam scores, or employment status (Glass and Garrett, 1995). Valencia Community College in Florida has developed an extended orientation course that focuses on student success (Nelson, 1993). Between 1987 and 1992, 81 percent of the students who enrolled in the extended orientation course passed their first-term courses, compared to 56 percent of the students enrolled in other college preparatory courses and 67 percent of all other students. After four terms, 65 percent of the students who enrolled in the extended orientation course were still enrolled at the college (Nelson, 1993).


Another strategy successfully used by some community colleges is peer and faculty mentoring. Santa-Rita (1993) presents a guidebook that recommends methods to improve teacher-student interaction in the classroom as a means of increasing student retention. The guidebook introduces eight major systems of classroom management, typologies of student behavior, and information about interaction patterns, behaviors, and options for coping with various classroom situations. Another program focusing on teacher-student relationships is Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. In an effort to retain students and improve advisement, this college instituted the SELECT Advisor programs in the summer of 1993. Becoming a "Master Advisor" involves attending a summer workshop, helping with student orientations, teaching one section of college orientation, and mentoring 10 at-risk students. A September 1994 retention report on all Fall 1993 freshmen indicated that the at-risk students in the SELECT program had a 73% retention rate, compared to a 70% retention rate for students enrolled in orientation classes and a 42% retention rate for students not enrolled in orientation classes (Clark and others, 1995). Similarly, Valencia Community College discovered that when faculty mentoring was combined with an orientation course the return rate increased by 10% beyond the rate of enrolling in an orientation course only (Nelson, 1993).

Peer mentoring programs also have been found to be effective in retaining students. In order to improve retention rates, the ALANA mentoring program at Saint Clair County Community College concentrates on identity issues facing Asian, Latin, African, and Native American (ALANA) freshman. In this program, peer mentors provide social and academic support, encourage students to think critically, and assist them with academic choices (Mueller, 1993). The PLACe tutorial program at Miramar College in California is dedicated to empowering students to attain educational success (Fink and Carrasquillo, 1994). In spring 1992, developmental English and math students who used PLACe services had a higher success rate (58 and 52 percent) than those who did not (37 and 41 percent). Retention strategies applied at Canada's Mohawk College include an assessment in the first semester to identify "high risk" students and the development of peer tutoring (Grevatt, 1992).


In addition to the PLACe tutorial center, Miramar College considers student retention strategies part of a campus-wide collaborative development effort. The college developed a "Student Retention Strategies Handbook" which contains multiple approaches to counteract dropout (Fink and Carrasquillo, 1994). Likewise, Allegheny Community college proposed a series of intervention strategies. These included establishing a women's center to provide support to non-traditional, female students; conducting a freshman seminar to promote supportive relationships among students and student-faculty interaction; creating college funded work-study for on-campus employment; establishing a faculty development program; creating additional student organizations; and developing a freshman orientation program (Price, 1993).


In sum, the intervention strategies that are widely used and evidence the greatest impact include orientation programs, mentoring, and multiple strategy approaches. Since different students may require different approaches, colleges are beginning to take a more holistic approach toward persistence by implementing multiple intervention strategies. Because dropping out often has negative implications, it behooves the colleges to use one or more of these intervention strategies in order to raise retention rates while simultaneously lowering attrition rates.


Bonham, L. Adrianne, and Luckie, Jo Ann I. "Taking a Break in Schooling: Why Community College Students Stop Out." Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 1993, 17(3), 257-70.

Clark, Kim, and Others. "SELECT: Achieving and Rewarding Excellence in Faculty Advising." Coffeyville, KS: Coffeyville Community College, 1995. (ED 382 264)

Coll, Kenneth, M., and VonSeggern, D. Joseph. "Community College Student Retention: Some Procedural and Programmatic Suggestions." Paper presented at the Wyoming Higher Education Student Affairs Conference, May 22-24, 1991, Powell, Wyoming. (ED 345 816)

Feldman, Mary Jane. "Factors Associated with One-Year Retention in a Community College." Research in Higher Education, 1993, 34(4), 503-12.

Fink, Diana, and Carrasquillo, Carmen. "Managing Student Retention in the Community College. Paper presented at "Leadership 2000," the Sixth Annual International Conference of the League for Innovation in the Community college and the Community College Leadership Program, July 17-20, 1994, San Diego, CA. (ED 379 008)

Glass, J. Conrad, and Garrett, Matthew S. "Student Participation in a College Orientation Course, Retention, and Grade Point Average." Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 1995,19(2), 117-32.

Grevatt, William K. "Student Success Program." Hamilton, Ontario: Mohawk College of Applied Arts and Technology, 1992. (ED 367 396)

Lanni, Joseph, C. "The Longitudinal Student Success Study: The Entering Student Survey." Paper presented at the 17th Annual Meeting of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, March 18-22, 1992, Washington, DC. (ED 350 017)

Lewallen, Willard C. "Early Alert: A Report on Two Pilot Projects at Antelope Valley College." Lancaster, CA: Antelope Valley College, 1993. (ED 369 452)

Mohammadi, John. "Exploring Retention and Attrition in a Two-Year Public Community College. Martinsville, VA: Patrick Henry Community College, 1994. (ED 382 257)

Moore, Nelle. "Persistence and Attrition at San Juan College." Farmington, NM: Office of Institutional Research, Grant Development, and Planning, San Juan College. (ED 380 159)

Mueller, Michelle K. "ALANA Intervention Program." Port Huron, MI: Saint Clair County Community College, 1993. (ED 361 043)

Nelson, Ron. "The Effect of SLS 1122 and Faculty Mentors on Student Performance." Orlando, FL: Valencia Community College, 1993. (ED 371 778)

Price, Linda A. "Characteristics of Early Student Dropouts at Allegany Community College and Recommendations for Early Intervention." Cumberland, MD: Allegany Community College, 1993. (ED 361 051)

Santa-Rita, Emilio. "Classroom Management for Student Retention." New York, NY: Bronx Community College, Department of Student Development, 1993. (ED 360 021)

Windham, Patricia. "The Relative Importance of Selected Factors to Attrition at Public Community Colleges." Paper presented at the 23rd Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association for Community Colleges, August 1-3, 1994, Savannah, Georgia. (ED 373 833)

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