restricted access Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure (review)
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Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure John M. Braxton, Amy S. Hirschy, and Shederick A. McClendon San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, ASHE Higher Education Report, Volume 30, Number 3, 2003, 140 pages, $26 (softcover)

Nationally, about 63% of high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education the fall after completing high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). The enrollment of traditional college-age students continues at record high levels. However, far too many students who enter the higher education system fail to earn degrees. More than a quarter of students who enter four-year institutions and half of those who enter two-year schools depart at the end of their first years (Adelman, 2004). Moreover, there is a wide gap in graduation rates between low and high income students and among different racial-ethnic groups (The Education Trust, 2004). These statistics have elevated concerns about college completion rates. Although student retention has received considerable attention in higher education literature and research, the completion rate problem remains a central challenge carrying serious implications for the development of human potential, educational equity, and institutional accountability.

In Understanding and Reducing College [End Page 213] Student Departure, Braxton, Hirschy and McClendon seek to further understand the completion rate problem by reviewing findings of empirical research on college student departure. They focus attention on the most widely cited student departure theory: Tinto's interactionalist theory. Through a review of empirical evidence, the authors critique Tinto's theory, formulate new models to account for student departure, and make recommendations for further scholarship on the topic. The authors also move beyond theory and into an examination of practice by reviewing exemplary institutional student retention programs. This dual focus on theory and practice is intended to further the use of research-based approaches to understanding and reducing college student departure.

Chapter one introduces Tinto's theory, and then dedicates considerable attention to reviewing empirical appraisals of the validity of the theory. The robustness of the theory is first examined by institutional type, including residential commuter and liberal arts institutions, and two-year colleges. After discussing the mixed patterns of support for the theory across institutional types, the authors conclude that a serious revision to Tinto's theory is needed.

In chapters two and three, the authors discuss new theoretical frameworks for residential and commuter institutions. Although the revised theory for residential colleges and universities maintains the original thrust of Tinto's concepts, the authors enhance the theory by identifying major factors that influence departure and specify six forces that foster or impede social integration in residential institutions. Because Tinto's theory lacks explanatory power in commuter institutions, the authors propose a new conceptual model of student departure for commuter colleges and universities. Sixteen propositions are advanced to form the foundation of this new theory. These chapters specify the unique contextual conditions at these institutional types, such as student entry characteristics, the external environment, the campus environment, and academic communities, and how these elements directly influence subsequent commitment to the institution or the departure decisions of students. In addition, both chapters discuss implications for racial and ethnic minority students at these institutional types.

The formulation of new theories of student departure has immediate implications for practice. In chapters four and five, the authors discuss these implications and put forth recommendations for implementation. Brief descriptions of exemplary student retention programs are provided to demonstrate the promise of using research-based approaches to reduce institutional rates of departure. The final chapter returns to a discussion of research and offers specific recommendations for further scholarship on the topic.

This publication offers a novel and practical approach to understanding the complex and ill-structured problem of college student departure. By providing concise reviews of the research findings that give rise to their theoretical propositions and new models, the authors present a well-organized case. Greater specification of student departure theory for residential colleges is helpful, but the generation of a new model for commuter institutions is particularly valuable given the paucity of empirical evidence for Tinto's theory at this institutional type. These new models demonstrate greater sensitivity to the unique characteristics of students attending and the educational contexts of...