Student Retention Research: A History Lesson

Okay the title (and the whole page actually) is a little passive aggressive, but I’m reading lots of retention literature at the moment and I’ll be honest, I’m sick of reading “Student retention has been a concern for some time now”. A couple of smart colleagues have pointed out that the language used has changed(*) significantly over time. The earliest studies describe it as ‘student mortality’ (1929), ‘wastage’ around the time of the Robbins report (1963), it appears to replaced by the delightfully counter-cultural ‘drop out’ at some point in the 1960’s. I suspect that most people still use ‘drop out’ to describe students leaving early, even if they take a guilty pause because it feels so loaded/ based on a deficit. A more positive way to describe the process is to describe the behaviours involved in staying including ‘persistence’ and of course  ‘retention’.

So this is a public service for anyone writing a paper on student retention. As of January 2019, I would argue that significant(*) research into student retention has been conducted for at least:

  • 22 years in the UK
  • 24 years in Australia
  • 44 years in the US


United Kingdom

As far as I can tell, the first major study into retention in the UK is the 1997 Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)-funded research report “Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England”. This was commissioned under the Major Government, so during a period of expansion in higher education, for example, the polytechnics had been abolished in 1992 (effective 1994), but before the New Labour 50% target.

Two research teams wrote two separate reports.

  • Yorke et al (1997), wrote a multi-institutional report on causes of departure, intentions etc.
  • Ozga & Sukhnandan (1997) wrote a more intimate study of departure in three institutions.

Even though the funding and HE landscape has changed dramatically since, both reports are still worth a read. There are a couple of notable earlier references: Rickinson & Rutherford’s (1995) paper on the role of counselling services to improve retention and two 1990 papers by Johnes (sorry I don’t know anything about them at all).

I’ve never known how to reference this report, so I’ve always referenced them separately as:

  • Yorke et al., (1997), Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England, HEFCE, Bristol
  • Ozga & Sukhnandan (1997), Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England, HEFCE, Bristol

I can’t find a pdf of the report, if anyone has one, I’d love to host it here. The best I can do is a library link to hard copies. There may also be a copy on the archived QAA website, but I don’t have access.

After this first report it gets a bit tricky to define what’s important or not, but I think any UK list needs to include (I’ll come back to these when I have some time):

  • National Audit Office Reports
  • Mantz Yorke & Bernard Longden’s textbooks and subsequent report on first years
  • What Works 1 & 2



This is categorically not my area of expertise, but my recollection is that the Australian HE sector got really interested in the issues of progression at about the same time as the UK. I think that a lot of focus was specifically on first year students, so until shown otherwise, I’m going to suggest that the first significant piece of work is:

Or download it directly fye

Please do correct me if I’m wrong.


United States of America

There may be earlier precedents, but my understanding is that the early significant research into retention arises in the early 1970s as part of the broader civil rights movement. Which let’s be frank, is just cool and exactly the sort of thing we all hoped we’d be doing when we grow up.

Vincent Tinto’s work has become near-paradigmatic and so it tends to squash out lots of other early innovators in the field for the new researcher.

  • TINTO, V., 1993. Leaving college : rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.
  • TINTO, V., 1975. Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research. Review of Educational Research, 45, pp. 89-125.

Tinto’s work is good. It provides a model that I think still stands up as a high-level road map of student retention, but a lot of researchers have spent a lot of time explaining why it’s less good for providing warning signs or triggers about individual departures. Tinto’s first significant piece of work is now 44 years old. He used work by French-speaking writers to build his models, I understand the versions he used were translated in the 1960’s, but the originals go back even further (Durkheim’s book on suicide (1897) and Van Gennep’s work on rites of passage (1909)). I’m sort of prepared to claim therefore that retention research is over 100 years old. 

But there are other early significant writers on retention in the US.

  • ASTIN, A., 1993. What matters in College? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

I really like Astin’s work, but only really know the 1993 book.

I also think that the First Year Experience/ University 101 literature is worth looking at from the perspective of early retention work.

  • UPCRAFT, L. and GARDNER, J., 1990. The Freshman Year Experience. Jossey-Bass.

I know far less about other early writers such as Bean and I’m not sure where to start on describing the mass of subsequent retention research, but you could do worse than to read:

  • PASCARELLA, E. and TERENZINI, P., 2005. How college affects students: volume 2 a third decade of research. USA: Jossey-Bass.
  • MAYHEW, M., ROCKENBACH, A., BOWMAN, N., SEIFERT, T., WOLNIAK, G., PASCARELLA, E. and TERENZINI, P., 2016. How College Affects Students: Volume 3, 21st Century Evidence That Higher Education Works. USA: Jossey-Bass.


European Universities

I’m not sure where to start given the enormous diversity between systems. I’m more familiar with some Dutch and Belgian work, but the very different starting points mean that the emphasis is different and I don’t know what constitutes early work. Obviously, I’m interested to put some keystone up here.


This page is in no way intended to be comprehensive. It’s just meant to help writers with that bloody irritating opening paragraph. The sector has been seriously thinking about retention for longer than it at first seems. 

Suggestions for any early keystone papers would be appreciated.



(*) Significant 

When I first posted the blog, I put out a call to the LDHEN jiscmail community asking for their thoughts about when the first significant research was conducted. I got some great suggestions for early researchers and papers (thank you). So honourable mentions go to the following early reports:


Journal of Education. 3/ 4/1929, Vol. 109 Issue 9, p266-266. 1p. Abstract: The article reports on the problem of student mortality in the U.S. which is finally beginning to receive some sustained attention. William Mather Lewis, president of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, declared that it is important to eliminate the avoidable mortality and secure more stable student bodies. Two main causes given for the present condition are faulty standards and methods of admission and failure to adjust the incoming student to his environment.


The Murray Report (1957) investigated ‘student wastage’.


Wankowski, J. appears to have been writing in the 1960s immediately after the publication of the Robbins report.

Wankowski, J. (1991a) ‘Success and failure at university’. In: Raaheim, K., Wankowski, J. and Radford, J. (eds.) Helping Students to Learn. Teaching, Counselling, Research. UK and USA: SRHE and Open University Press. Pp59-67










One thought on “Student Retention Research: A History Lesson

  1. Pingback: The first year experience of higher education in the UK, Yorke & Longden (2008) – Living Learning Analytics Blog

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