Student Retention Literature – Tinto’s Model

  1. Following on from my previous post on the Retention of Computing Students, I wanted to examine the retention literature and present the theoretical models underpinning a students decision to withdraw from their course in more detail.  As I stated previously, in the field of academic student retention literature Tinto’s model is held in high regard and is the most highly respected model (Kember 1995), providing a heuristic and theoretical framework for understanding student behaviour (Tinto 1975; Tinto 1982; Tinto 1987; Tinto 1993). According to Tinto’s theory the decision to ‘drop out’ arises from a combination of student characteristics and the extent of their academic, environmental and social integration in an institution.Tinto’s original model, (Tinto 1975), contained five categories, with constructs interacting to determine a student’s dropout decision. In many respects the three primary principles of Tinto’s model are to describe processes whereby institutions of higher education were committed to the students they serve, that they were committed to the education of all, not just some, of their students and thirdly that they were committed to the development of supportive social and educational communities in which all students are integrated as competent members.titnto75

    A Conceptual Schema for Dropout from College, (Tinto 1975)

    Further work by Tinto led to the development of a longitudinal, explanatory model of departure (Tinto 1993), illustrated below. This expanded work added “…adjustment, difficulty, incongruence, isolation, finances, learning, and external obligations or commitments” to his original model. He proposed that “…the stronger the individual’s level of social and academic integration, the greater his or her subsequent commitment to the institution and to the goal of college graduation” (Pascarella et al. 1986).


    A Conceptual Schema for Dropout From College, (Tinto 1993)

    In summary, the model argues that individual departure from institutions can be viewed as arising out of a longitudinal process of interactions between an individual with given attributes, skills, financial resources, prior educational experiences, dispositions (intentions and commitments) and integration with other members of the academic and social systems of the institution (Tinto 1993). Students entry commitment affects the extent of their social and academic interaction within a learning institution, and the extent of their integration, which in turn has an impact on their goals and institutional commitment.

    The following examines the retention literature under the topics defined by Tinto’s 1993 model.

    1. Pre-Entry Attributes

    The first segment in Tinto’s 1993 model, similar to his initial model, is labelled pre-entry attributes and includes elements related to family background, skills, abilities and prior schooling. Although one cannot underestimate the significance of post-entry educational experiences, to a certain extent it is the pre-entry attributes associated with students, which provide insight into understanding how they will ultimately respond to their educational environment and persist. Models such as those by Summerskill, and Marks point to the importance of intellectual attributes in shaping the individuals ability to meet academic demands (Summerskill 1962; Marks 1967; Tinto 1993), while those by Heilbrun, Rose and Elton, Rossmann and Kirk, and Watermann and Waterman stress the roles personality, motivation and disposition play in influencing the students willingness to meet those demands (Heilbrun 1965; Rose and Elton 1966; Rossmann and Kirk 1970; Waterman and Waterman 1972; Tinto 1993).

    Terenzini argued that little research has been done to identify the process by which students become involved or integrated into the campus culture during their transition to college (Terenzini et al. 1994). The nature and dynamics of this process vary according to the student’s social, family, and educational background; personality; educational and occupational orientations and aspirations. The process is a highly interrelated web-like series of family, interpersonal, academic, and organizational pulls and pushes that shape student learning and persistence (Terenzini et al. 1994).

    Bean’s model in 1980 also established the condition that the background characteristics of students must be taken into account in order to understand their interactions within the environment of the higher educational institute (Bean 1982). In presenting his model in 1985 Pascarella suggested that quality of student effort, student background/pre-college traits, and interactions with agents of socialization directly influence learning and cognitive development (along with all other variables in the model) (Pascarella 1985). Levin also found that family background characteristics play a significant role in at-risk minority student persistence (Levin and Levin 1991).

    2. Goals, Commitments

    Those students who drift into higher education without a strong sense of purpose are likely to exhibit lower levels of commitment and hence persistence. Research has shown consistently that efforts to improve or maintain student motivation can lead to better retention and achievement (Martinez 1997). The intrinsic and extrinsic factors that influence the student on their initial course selection are important to remember. There is strong evidence that the initial motivations of students, as expressed by their reasons for enrolling, aspirations, expectations of college do not vary significantly between students who subsequently stay and students who leave (Martinez 1995).

    The second part of Tinto’s model, labelled goals/commitments, shows the addition of student intentions and external commitments to the student drop/stop-out decision. As a student enters the institution, intentions and external commitments have significant bearing on overall goal and institutional commitments. These first two segments of the model can be said to represent characteristics the student possesses at the time of entry and a student’s disposition in terms of intentions and motivational factors. These characteristics and factors prepare the student to respond to experiences he or she may encounter at the given institution.

    Also introduced at the second stage in the model is the acknowledgment that external commitments to others and entities outside of the institution, such as family, friends, and work obligations, have an ongoing effect throughout the time spent in college. The external forces can either be supportive or have a negative influence on a student’s goals and commitments, subsequent interactions with the institution, and ultimately, his or her departure decision (Tinto 1993). Primary to Tinto’s original model was the degree to which students are successful in their pursuits determines the degree to which they are committed to their career and educational goals as well as to the institution.

    Bean’s model (Bean 1980) correlates with this in establishing the condition that

    …the student interacts with the institution, perceiving objective measures, such as grade point average or belonging to campus organizations, as well as subjective measures, such as the practical value of the education and the quality of the institution, and that these variables are in turn expected to influence the degree to which the student is satisfied with the institute of Higher Education. The level of satisfaction is expected to increase the level of commitment (p.160)

    The combined influences of the college environment as perceived by the student and the effort expended by the student lead to student development (Pace 1979). The quality of student effort is the major determinant in the amount of learning conducted and is related to remaining in third level education (Ethington and Polizzi 1996).

    Levin also identified a number of student characteristics as having “the largest impact on at-risk minority student persistence” (Levin and Levin 1991). At the top of the list was academic preparedness, quantified by their high school grade point average, rank in class, and standardized test scores. This was followed by the ability to adapt to the college environment. Other characteristics included commitment to educational goals, one’s perception of progress toward those goals, reasons for pursuing a college degree, self-confidence, and a willingness to seek academic assistance.

    3. Institutional Experiences

    The third element of Tinto’s model has been expanded to include the formal and informal aspects of institutional experiences and the interaction/effect of the academic and social systems. Academic and non-academic staff are both seen as having the ability to influence the departure decision. Again, the external community, made up of individuals or entities with which the student interacts, continues to be a factor over time (Tinto 1993). Literature in this area has shown that institutional characteristics and culture have both direct and indirect effects on the student’s tendency to become involved in both academic and non-academic activities (Braxton et al. 1995). The college also has an impact on determining the amount of student involvement and thus the gains and retention (Clagget 1992). Findings from an empirical test of Bean’s model (Bean 1982) indicated that, institutional quality and opportunity for students were the two most important variables influencing commitment whereby “…men left the university even though they were satisfied … women who were satisfied were more committed to the institution and were less likely to leave.” (Bean 1980).

    McLaughlin’s work demonstrated the potential contribution of institutional research to changing attitudes about the importance of student retention by drawing on the work of Kubler-Ross (Kubler-Ross 1993; McLaughlin et al. 1998). Changing the way an institution deals with student retention is, in fact, analogous to losing an old friend and too often one becomes comfortable with the way things have always been done and may result in increasing levels of anxiety, uncertainty and the loss of comfort. Astin declared that the repercussions for retention policy and practice should be overarching rather than singular in nature, and institutions need not look far afield to find the key to enhanced student retention (Astin 1993). It is achievable from the restricted institute resources and springs from the commitment of an institution, its academic and non-academic staff to the education of its students. Levin described at-college predictors of persistence for at-risk minority students as follows: “Simply stated, it is student interactions with peers, advisers, and faculty that increase satisfaction with the institution, create a sense of belonging, and strengthen commitment to the institution’s educational goals and standards” (Levin and Levin 1991).

    4. Academic and Social Integration

    A unifying theme for many of the studies is the idea that a student’s involvement in the social environment as well as the academic environment is critical to success in college. Lenning concluded that the most significant model contributing to the study of retention and attrition is that proposed by Spady (Spady 1970; Spady 1971) and refined by Tinto (Lenning et al. 1980). Spadys model was based on Durkheim’s theory of suicide, which suggests that, when people are not sufficiently involved with society in terms of interpersonal relationships (affiliations) and values or morals, the likelihood for probable self-inflicted death exists. Utilising family background as the foundation, Spadys model had five variables which when combined contribute directly to social integration (Spady 1970; Spady 1971).

    Similarly, Tinto found that a student’s sense of academic and social belonging impacts on retention and graduation, (Tinto 1993) and this sense of belonging is increased or decreased through interactions with the academic and social environments of the university. His findings have been extended to include student expectations (Braxton et al. 1995). Integration including academic and social elements represents the resulting student/institutional experiences and their effect of modifying student intentions, internal/external commitments, ultimate goals, and overall commitments. Positive campus experiences tend to increase integration into the academic and/or social systems, whereas negative experiences tend to weaken academic and/or social integration (Tinto 1993). Tinto emphasized that strong intentions or career goals, can overpower the effect of negative experiences and poor integration into the culture of the institution. Whereas positive interactions can be mitigated by external community and forces that are beyond the institution’s ability to influence (Tinto 1993).

    Using longitudinal data collected by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Astin found that the three most important aspects of student involvement were academic involvement, involvement with staff, and involvement with student peer groups, which led to his conclusion (Astin 1977)

    …the student’s peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years. (p.398)

    Findings from Pascarellas’ empirical study indicated that residential facilities and the dominant peer group were the primary influences on academic achievement. Less evident, but nonetheless perceptible, was the effect of informal student-staff interaction outside of the lecture hall (Pascarella 1985).

    Bean conducted further research to determine intervening variables not identified in his 1980 model and in a subsequent study proposed a revised model concluding that firstly a student’s peers are more important agents of socialization than informal staff contact, secondly that students may play a more active role in their socialization than previously thought; and thirdly that college grades seem more the product of selection than socialization (Bean 1985). Bean and Eaton detailed a psychological model of college student retention, the foundations of which were the psychological processes at the base of academic and social integration (Bean and Eaton 2001).

    Although passive, Tintos’ model remains one of the most influential models of dropout for higher education. The model is static, depicting the main variables, and in many respects is non-dynamic and one-dimensional, an overarching weakness. As academics and the goal for academic institutions is to focus on the two factors possible, Institutional Experience and Integration, illustrated below.

    Untitled tinto

    The main factors in relation to institutional experiences include academic performance, staff interactions, extra-circular activities and peer-group interactions. Academic integration and social integration can be influenced by weekly activity and in communications outside the classroom, in informal discussions and exchanges with fellow students and staff. Tinto’s model proposes that once the student is emotionally content with the institution, their cognitive and academic performance will inform and they will perform.

    Kember claims that the testing of Tinto’s model by a number of researchers has confirmed its validity, although some have found that factors external to the institution play a greater role in student drop-out than the model suggests (Kember 1995). It has also been found that Tinto’s model was not as effective in predicting persistence in commuter colleges, as it had been at residential institutions (Pascarella et al. 1983). It was asserted that commuter students do not have as many opportunities to become involved or integrated into the campus environment as residential students; therefore affecting their decision to withdraw or persist differently. It was also suggested that pre-enrolment characteristics or attributes might have a more significant influence on withdrawal, in a non-residential setting (Pascarella et al. 1983). Pascarella’s research indicated that for commuter students, background characteristics and intentions to remain in college, directly affected by institutional commitment, are equal to or of greater importance than the academic and social integration process from first year experiences, in predicting withdrawal for commuter students.


    A great amount of research into the retention or attrition research has been conducted. However broadly speaking the literature falls into two broad categories: (1) Research that investigates the perceived problems of dropout or failure to achieve qualification goals. (2) Research that identifies possible solutions: how providers can improve or raise retention and achievement rates (Martinez 1995). According to Astin many of the results in student retention literature were merely indicators of the types of students admitted at various institutions (Astin 1993). Studies also continue to be plagued by the difficulties associated with differentiating among numerous dropout behaviours, such as academic suspension versus a temporary stop-out with the intent to return, or accomplishment of an educational goal without the completion of a degree. Mansell and Parkin have advised institutions against undertaking further research into the causes of withdrawal, arguing that a number of studies have already been conducted and that the reasons vary from individual to individual (Mansell and Parkin 1990; McGivney 1996). Despite this they recognise that the extent of early withdrawal could be reduced by concentrating on the student support given from pre-enrolment advice through to induction. Retention research efforts are affected by the difficulty of trying to generalize retention study results across institutions due to the complex, interrelationships between the student and the institutional culture and the effect on a student’s experiences.

    During the last two decades, retention or attrition theory has begun to guide research efforts. The most notable theory is Tinto’s 1993 model of student departure, which reflects the results of almost twenty years of research contributing to the body of knowledge surrounding this theory. Tinto proposes that students enter college with pre-existing attributes and experiences, including family background, skills/abilities, and prior schooling, to begin a longitudinal process of interacting with the formal and informal social and academic components of the institution. This process is affected by external forces and as a result of this interactional process, the student ultimately decides either to stay involved or to leave the educational environment.


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