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  • An Examination of Persistence Research Through the Lens of a Comprehensive Conceptual Framework
  • Robert D. Reason (bio)

Arguably, student retention has been the primary goal for higher education institutions for several decades. Certainly, it has been the focus of much research effort among higher education scholars. Unfortunately, efforts to improve retention seem to be ineffective; attrition rates have endured despite significant efforts to close them (ACT, 2004b; Braxton, Brier, & Steele, 2007; Terenzini, Cabrera, & Bernal, 2001). Notwithstanding the emphasis placed on student retention, decades of research, and countless institutional initiatives, slightly over half of students who begin a bachelor's degree program at a four-year college or university will complete their degree at that same institution within six years (Berkner, He, & Cataldi, 2002). During the 1990s, while some colleges and universities certainly improved their retention of rates, in the aggregate student graduation rates changed little. Students enrolling in a four-year institution in the 1995-1996 academic year, for example, were no more likely to complete a baccalaureate degree five years later than were their counterparts who entered during the 1989-1990 academic year (Horn & Berger, 2004).

A substantial empirical and prescriptive literature does exist to guide faculty members, campus administrators, and public policy makers in attempts to increase student persistence in higher education. With rare exception (e.g., Astin, 1993), these persistence studies possess the same major flaw as most higher education outcomes research; these studies fail to consider the wide variety of influences that shape student persistence, focusing instead on discrete conditions, interventions, and reforms (Terenzini & Reason, 2005). In 2005, Terenzini and Reason proposed a conceptual framework that takes into account the multiple and interrelated student, faculty, and institutional forces that influence college success. Although Terenzini and Reason originally proposed their framework to guide student outcomes research generally, they argued that it is applicable to specific outcomes like retention. I, therefore, use this framework to organize and synthesize the research on college student persistence.

Writing a comprehensive review of research on student persistence is a Herculean task. The publications that feature persistence as a primary outcome measure are almost innumerable. Moreover, literature reviews of persistence research have been published periodically in the higher education literature. I use these existing reviews as the foundation for this article. Beside my own previous review (Reason, 2003), I draw heavily upon reviews by Tinto (2006-2007) and Pascarella and Terenzini (1991, 2005), as well as the many scholarly and empirical works by Braxton. I supplement these secondary sources by incorporating persistence research published more recently. By using Terenzini and Reason's framework to organize the following discussion, this review offers scholars and practitioners a [End Page 659] comprehensive, integrated conception of the forces that shape college student persistence. Further, the framework allows for a more complete explication and examination of the interactions between the person and college environments, a theme that runs throughout the articles in this special edition.

A Note on Language

Although the sheer number of studies exploring student persistence makes this review Herculean, so too does the ambiguity of what actually constitutes the outcome of interest. A cursory review of the literature leads the reader to note at least two terms for the outcome are used (erroneously) interchangeably: retention and persistence. Retention is an organizational phenomenon-colleges and universities retain students. Institutional retention rates, the percentage of students in a specific cohort who are retained, are often presented as measures of institutional quality. Persistence, on the other hand, is an individual phenomenon-students persist to a goal. That a student's ultimate goal may (or may not) be graduation from college introduces another important distinction between the two terms. Because individual students define their goals, a student may successfully persist without being retained to graduation.

Retention and persistence are not the only terms used to describe the topic of this article. Pascarella and Terenzini (1991, 2005) used the phrase "educational attainment" to capture the variability of students' goals and the disconnection between retention and persistence. Yorke (1999) used the term non-completer to describe students who "disappeared from the student record system" (p. 4) before successfully completing a program of study. Tinto (1987) included the term "stop-out" (p...