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Exploring Undergraduate Attrition and Retention: Applying Theory and Consultation to a Private University

22 June 2011


The author served as an organizational consultant applying the dominant theory of student departure (i.e., Tinto’s interactionalist theory) to a small private residential university. An analysis of undergraduate attrition and retention was conducted using exit interview data (including two surveys), focus groups with current students, and interviews with faculty and staff.

The exit interview survey data indicated departing students were satisfied overall with school services. The majority of students cited “wanting to attend a different college” and “financial reasons” as the major reasons for leaving. An analysis of the underlying structure of the exit interview surveys found that many domains in the preeminent model of student departure are not being adequately assessed, implying a clear picture regarding student departure is not visible. However, the surveys in conjunction with an exit interview provide a means to gather qualitative information that more accurately illustrates the interplay of multiple factors contributing to an individual’s decision to leave.

During the focus groups, major themes pertaining to reasons for leaving and staying were discussed. It was found that most themes fell into Tinto’s major domains (i.e., pre-entry characteristics, goal commitment, institutional commitment, social integration, and academic integration). Students also indicated that when deciding to leave, peers will discuss their decision with family and friends. To have an impact in retention the university needs to become more involved in the student’s decision making process regarding departure. A dynamic-evaluative survey of a student’s college experience was created. The survey provides real-time feedback to students and points students toward services offered by the university. Its aim is to increase student awareness of services offered and increase student contact with the institution regarding decisions to leave. Additionally the survey evaluates attrition risk through direct questioning about intent to leave.

During the interviews, faculty and staff talked about current retention strategies as well as ideas to improve retention. It was found that the individuals interviewed were typically aware of retention strategies that were related to their department or office, but were less aware of other institutional strategies. The major emergent themes and ideas for retention are discussed as well as recommendations for the university.


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