• August 30, 2015

In Student Retention, Attitude Seems to Matter Most

Suppose a college dean wanted to predict which first-year students would remain continuously enrolled at her institution for at least three years. She might look at the students' standardized-test scores, their study habits, or whether they live on campus. Those are all factors that are known to be associated with retention rates.

But she might also try asking first-year students a simple question: Do you like it here?

In a paper presented here on Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Association for Institutional Research, two graduate students at the University of Maryland at College Park said that students' enrollment patterns at their institution were strongly predicted by how they answered a survey question in the eighth week of their first semester.

That question, which is part of a Beginning Student Survey that is regularly administered at Maryland, reads as follows: "At present, your general attitude toward the University of Maryland is ..." followed by a five-point scale that ranges from "strongly negative" to "strongly positive."

Fledgling students' answers to that simple, banal question turned out to be strongly associated with their odds of dropping out or transferring away from Maryland over a six-semester period, according to the study that was presented here. If their attitude toward the university at that early date was positive, they tended to stay; if it was strongly negative, they tended to leave.

The question had stronger predictive power than more-familiar variables like students' self-reported study skills or their involvement with student organizations.

"The simple message here is, Attitude matters," said Jessica Mislevy, who wrote the paper with Corbin M. Campbell. Both are doctoral students in education at Maryland.

"The general attitude toward the campus plays a clear role," Ms. Mislevy said. "That suggests that students are able to detect very early whether a campus is a good fit for them."

Ms. Mislevy and Ms. Campbell looked at the experiences of more than 2,000 people who enrolled as first-time, full-time students at College Park in the fall semester of 2002.

Six semesters later, in the fall of 2005, 76 percent of those students had been continuously enrolled at Maryland; 12 percent were enrolled at Maryland but had "stopped out" for at least one semester along the way; 8 percent had transferred to other colleges; and 5 percent had dropped out of college entirely. (The authors identified students as dropouts if there were no current records for them in the National Student Clearinghouse database.)

Ms. Mislevy and Ms. Campbell studied dozens of different items from the Beginning Student Survey to see which ones predicted enrollment behavior. For both women and men, the single most powerful predictor was the "attitude toward the University of Maryland" question.

In response to that finding, Ms. Mislevy said, a campus committee on retention plans to encourage faculty members and dormitory resident advisers to have conversations with first-year students about their perceptions about the university. In cases in which students strongly dislike Maryland, the committee would like to know exactly why.

The authors also identified several other patterns.

Among women, several factors seemed to be associated with their tendency to stop out, drop out, or transfer. They were more likely, for example, to stay continuously enrolled if they lived on the campus.

Interestingly, women were more likely to "stop out" for a semester or more if they had higher scores on first-year survey questions such as "I am earning the grades I want" or "I've stayed motivated."

"In many cases, these are women who also reported that they lacked a clear future direction," Ms. Mislevy said. "Maybe these are women who are motivated, who are going full steam ahead, but who need to pause at some point during college to decide where to go with their lives."


1. 22228715 - June 03, 2010 at 12:45 pm

As written, this kind of seems like one of those obvious research conclusions, somethings that the decent administrator of 100 years ago could have told you. (If they feel positively about the place after the orientation glow wears off, they're more likely to stay than if they hate it from the very beginning. Hm.)

On the other hand... did the researchers tease out whether 8 weeks in was a better predictor than 2 weeks in? or 2 days in? or 4 months in? or 8.5 weeks in?

Did the predictive value change for those students in majors that have the first big academic trial period at 4 weeks in? at 8 weeks in? At the end of the first semester? Could the predictive model be more nuanced by that or another factor?

Now THAT would have some interesting implications for practice.

2. gus03 - June 03, 2010 at 01:25 pm

The question/response is a good proxy but fails to get at the root question about why a student may NOT like it there. A bad romance could create the same response as a bad grade in Chem 101. My point is, our emotional response to specific attractors/detractors//engagers/disengagers are strongly universal. More nuanced model needed, indeed.

3. greenhills73 - June 03, 2010 at 01:37 pm

Attitude is the most important variable in ANYTHING, whether it's getting through boot camp, training for a marathon, surviving as a P.O.W., excelling academically or accepting the sacrifices of parenthood. I would say that this is a fluff piece, except for the realization that we need to find out WHY students like it here or not, and that's important.

4. amloera - June 03, 2010 at 01:51 pm

Many of us have become so convinced retention can only be about the interplay of so many complex and convoluted issues that we've overlooked the obvious. I disagree that this is a fluff piece - this is an important conclusion to come out of this study and should serve as a springboard for more focused research. As for changes in predictive values based on changes in time periods or different majors, that's what follow-up studies are for.

5. diehl - June 04, 2010 at 07:55 am

There is also a positive correlation between % full-time faculty and graduation rates.

6. ednak - June 04, 2010 at 06:43 pm

Very interesting. Talk about something that sounds easy to do, but in all likelihood is not. Sure, it sounds straightforward, but how do you create the appropriate balance of environmental conditions that will appeal to the students' sense of satisfaction?

There aren't going to be any easy answers or a one size fits all approach. Perhaps a key take-away here is that you can make progress in student retention by addressing up front attitude and readiness to learn issues. Providing avenues and outlets of support the second a student begins interactive with an institution may be the best way to improve retention rates.

The online providers need to give this acute attention.

Founder, ednak.org
Thought Networking for Online Educators

7. stinebeck - June 07, 2010 at 05:30 pm

It's an argument for attentive customer service from day one in dealing with and retaining new students. They are the principal customers, no matter how immature we may think they are; if their attitude sours within 8 weeks, it is unlikely that they chose the wrong school to go to. Have we treated them respectfully as the rational but anxious young adults that they are?

David Stinebeck
Concordant Consulting,LLC

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.