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The Push for Higher Education: College Attrition Rates

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Caitlin Stein
July 23, 2018


Politicians and government groups are currently pushing for more adults to seek a degree or certification to gain higher wages and enhanced placement in the workforce. However, research shows that only 58 percent of freshmen graduate from their institution of higher education. Student attrition rates affect individual debt, community employment, job availability and state and federal debt. College graduation rates have been seen to promote economic development.

Attrition in College

Attrition is the unit of measurement used to determine the rate of dropout of students who do not return for or during their first and second-year of college. There is difficulty distinguishing between academic failure and withdrawal due to transfer or a temporary leave. Martinez, Sher, Krull and Wood stated,“it is of the utmost importance to understand the phenomenon of attrition such that informed efforts can be made to decrease the rate of its occurrence.” Researchers, such as Tinto, believe the Department of Education should implement policies and programs throughout the college systems to better track the college student success and attrition rates. The theory of attrition is based on the efforts to decrease the rate of occurrence and is a dependent measure provided by the university registrar. According to Tinto, the largest leaving occurs during the first-year of college and the beginning of the second-year.

Community college attrition rates are higher than that of traditional four-year universities. McGlynn provides several statistics regarding California community colleges, which serves as a basis for examination. For example, “only one-fourth of students seeking degrees earned at least 20 credits in their first community college year.” Further, only 21 percent of students who do not obtain at least twenty credits in their first-year return for a second-year. Early identification of at-risk students may provide colleges and universities with the opportunity to offer immediate assistance to those in need of remediation. With the identification and classification of at-risk students, those who fall into the high-risk pool of applicants can be enrolled in programs to assist with successful college completion upon entrance.

Pope, Miklitsch and Weigand focus on diverse student populations and their integration within the campus environment at a four-year university. A key thought provided by these authors is the importance of exploring the student’s “attitudes concerning their social and academic experiences.” The authors then proceed to review literature which supports the theories behind pre-college experiences, such as attitudes regarding social and academic experiences, student backgrounds and sociocultural differences and their effects on student success. These thoughts lay at the heart of understanding and assisting students of multiple backgrounds to reach success.

First-generation students are noted to constitute a large percentage of at-risk students. “First-generation students can be defined as students whose parents may have some college, post-secondary certificates or associate’s degrees, but not bachelor’s degrees,” or as “students as those whose parents have no education beyond high school.” Studies have begun looking further into first-generation students because they have been found to be lacking in preparedness and knowledgeable support from their family and friends. According to the review by Martinez, Sher, Krull and Wood, first-generation students feel unprepared for college, have a lack of funds for college and are more likely to work while attending college than other generational students and express challenges in integration with the college community. First-generation students have also been found to experience “less support from their family in attending college and spend less time socializing with their peers and talking with their teachers in high school.”  Both problems are linked to factors that affect college success.

While first-generation students are more likely to not complete their degree, they also have qualities beneficial to academic success. First-generation students are less likely to be drug and alcohol abusers in college, have higher career aspirations and have lower party aspirations. In addition, most of the potential problems that first-generation students face can be solved through mediation and support.


In conclusion, before the leading politicians and governmental entities begin pushing adults to go to college and working to lower college tuition, they should focus on the problems within the higher education system which are keeping students from succeeding. Otherwise, the institutions run the risk of losing funds, notoriety and accreditation by failing to ensure the success of their students, when in all reality the students were pushed into higher education before the Department of Higher Education was prepared to ensure success through systematic inquiry and research.

Author: Dr. Caitlin P. Stein, DPA. Caitlin Stein graduated with her Doctorate in Public Administration in 2017 and supervises the legal team with a locally owned finance company. She is a mother of two boys, happily married, and a freelance writer in between. [email protected]

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