Adult Learning and Development

Exploring faculty connections to student persistence in adult higher education

Decades of research into student attrition offers a bevy of conflicting causes and cures for dropouts. However, the consistent factor most research identifies as a key antecedent to student persistence is faculty.

Considering the faculty connection to student persistence, I conducted focus group research with faculty at two universities that specialize in adult higher education to discover best practices for fostering adult-student goal commitment. Combined with an extensive review of retention literature in traditional higher education environments, the research suggests that universities with a myopic focus on institutional-centric "retention" initiatives may only make matters worse.

The findings suggested that attrition issues must be considered from a system level, with the understanding that attrition issues often have causes unrelated to the institution or directly related to the institution's marketing and onboarding practices.

Institutions with successful student success programs shift from a myopic focus on retaining students so they can make more money to persistence programs that attract, develop, and promote student success, while helping students recognize and meet their needs for a life-changing education with a diploma that represents knowledge, skills, values, behaviors, and networks necessary for professional and life success. In short, organizations that build successful student persistence programs align all of the activities of the institution to communicate and deliver value to students while developing graduates that meet the needs of employers.

Based on my paper, "Exploring faculty connections to student persistence in an adult higher education environment" (Duncan, 2007), this post reviews key lessons and limitations attrition literature suggests for meeting student retention initiatives in adult higher education environments, summarizes results from focus group research into best practices for helping adult students to achieve academic goals, and proposes practices and research projects for discovering antecedents and barriers to adult-student persistence.

Lessons and limitations from attrition literature

Students have been dropping out for as long as there has been school. Since dropouts adversely affect finances and credibility of academic institutions, administrators have become increasingly concerned about student attrition (Hossler, 2006). The growing national concern over student attrition has generated rich secondary resources that allow institutions of adult higher education to establish benchmarks and identify best practices applied by other academic institutions to improve student retention. 

Common threads throughout the available literature weave a clear connection between faculty and student persistence. From a marketing perspective, a direct connection between faculty and student persistence makes sense because faculty serves as a front-line customer service point at which a university delivers its product, education, to a "customer", the student. While long-term viability of an organization in a competitive environment compels an organization to align all activities to deliver value to a customer at a profit to the organization (Dhar & Glazer, 2003), Bean points out that, "faculty members, more than any other group of employees at the university, shape the psychological processes and attitudes that have the greatest effect on retention" (2005, pg. 223).

Other key lessons and ideas from retention research are as follows:

  • Accountability. Realign organizational culture to foster student goal attainment (Berger, 2001), "holding faculty and staff accountable for enhancing student persistence" (Tinto, 2002).
  • Responsibility. Identify an individual responsible for coordinating retention strategies (Habley & McClanahan, 2004).
  • Benchmarking. Establish benchmarking relationships with similar institutions (Curtis, 2005).
  • Support. Invest in academic support programs that foster student success (Gansemer-Topf & Schuh, 2003).
  • Intervention. Identify students who need assistance academically or socially, and coordinate an intervention team to develop student competencies (Seidman, 2005, 298-299).
  • Active engagement. Build a demanding environment through which the student grows by actively engaging self and others in the learning process (Tinto, 2002).
  • Realistic expectations. Schools in open enrollment institutions have significantly higher attrition rates caused by factors that may be outside institutional control, including student abilities, skills, preparation, attributes, attitudes, values, knowledge, and commitments (Mortenson, 2005).
  • Commitment. Students tend to succeed in universities that "are committed to their success, hold high expectations for their success, provide needed academic, social and financial support, provide frequent feedback, and actively involve them with other students and faculty in learning" (Tinto, 2005, 324).

Limitations of available research

While attrition literature offers abundant lessons and ideas for building retention programs for adult higher education, important limitations when applying secondary research to adult learning models include: a mismatched perspective between traditional institutions that serve young adults and non-traditional models that serve working adults; a static approach for a dynamic environment, and; perceiving the problem through a university-centric lens, as follows:

Mismatched perspective

Virtually all of the current literature focuses on traditional pedagogical models that rely on knowledge transfer from non-practitioner professor to inexperienced student. In comparison, non-traditional institutions have pioneered models that use practitioner-faculty to facilitate knowledge among working professionals. Developing inexperienced young adults who have limited life experience likely requires different approaches than those for developing professional adults with extensive life experience and full-time jobs.

Static approach for a dynamic environment

An increasingly diverse student demographic in the college compounds the challenge of applying secondary research to a dynamic environment. Adapting practices to meet the needs of emerging student populations likely requires shifting from methodologically myopic lecture-test paradigms to integrative approaches that combine practices from various theories and models to meet the developmental needs of a diverse student population in a dynamic environment.

Using a methodologically integrative approach requires that the faculty member become an active participant in the learning process with students (Tilley, 2007). Braxton, Milem, and Sullivan (2000) confirmed the practicality of this approach when they found a direct link between active learning environments created by instructors and student goal commitment.

University-centric lens

Most of the existing attrition literature focuses through a university-centric lens. While they are important symptoms, reducing attrition and increasing retention focus on a benefit to the university: keeping the customers to boost profitability and credibility of the institution. Effectively addressing attrition issues requires stepping out of a university-centric perspective to view the problem through the student experience (Meyer & Schwager, 2007). Viewing attrition problems from the student perspective allows an organization to take steps that strengthen the customer relationship while boosting the bottom line.

In other words, the most effective solution to attrition symptoms may focus on building procedures, policies, and practices that support student persistence to develop the knowledge, tools, skills, relationships, and values that translate into professional and life success--while enhancing the long-term viability of the institution.

Faculty practices that foster student persistence

While scouring attrition literature can provide ideas for advancing student persistence, Sarah Curtis pointed out that "the most valuable research for an institution will be the research conducted on that institution's own population" (2005, 17). Combining Curtis' counsel with an understanding of the vital connection between faculty and student commitment (Bean, 2005), I conducted focus group research with the faculty of two adult higher education institutions to identify faculty practices that can best support adult students to achieve academic goals in higher education. Following is a summary of key practices adult faculty recommended for supporting student persistence in an adult higher-education environment (Duncan, 2007):

  • Affirm. Continuously affirm each student's decision to attend the University by helping students remember or realize why they are in school, and continuously communicate the value of pursuing higher education.
  • Integrate. Help students reduce the juggling act between personal, professional, and academic life compartments by encouraging them to create opportunities for integrating projects, processes, and perspectives for more effective professional development--inside and outside the classroom. The most successful student is the one who leverages course work for career advancement while in the pursuit of a diploma. 
  • Model. Model the correct behaviors that advance academic, personal, and professional growth.
  • Coach. Coach students with the skills they need to drive themselves and other students to succeed on their own and in their learning community. 
  • Orient. Accelerate and foster student orientation into the culture and processes of the university and the classroom. Provide students with the tools, capacity, and resilience necessary to excel in a demanding and fast-paced professional development program.
  • Engage. Take a personal interest in the academic and professional development of each student, actively engaging in mutual development.
  • Communicate. Communicate with each student before, during, and after each class. Create communication opportunities that foster student growth, including delivering significant and timely feedback, praising accomplishments, celebrating milestones, and helping students socialize and adapt in a dynamic environment.
  • Connect. Create opportunities to connect regularly with each student on a personal level. Contact students who miss a workshop to let them know they were missed and to keep them on track for meeting course objectives.
  • Recognize. Create opportunities to recognize and celebrate outstanding scholarship, professional accomplishments, and personal milestones.
  • Anticipate. Recognize when students are struggling with individual, team or university issues that might adversely affect performance, satisfaction, and commitment. Take proactive steps to help each individual student fully engage in the benefits the course offers. 
  • Intervene. Look for opportunities to develop the scholarly skills and commitments of students. Know how to provide or recommend available support services for students who seem to be struggling with academic competencies or course objectives.
  • Develop. Provide consistent, timely, and constructive feedback that develops growth and motivation.
  • Relate. Help students recognize how course material and classroom activities make them more effective in their personal, professional, and academic lives.
  • Socialize. Create a classroom environment that actively recognizes the individual value of each student, and that engages students in developing one another.
  • Value. Make sure students leave each workshop with valuable knowledge and skills that they can immediately apply for more effective personal and professional lives. Promote the unique value the institution and class provide for the student. Contribute unique value to the institutional learning model. Help students recognize the growing value they provide for themselves, their families, their learning teams, and their employers. 

Institutional practices for supporting student success 

To help develop programs that actively foster student persistence, adult higher education institutions can do the following:

Develop a holistic-system perspective of student success

A holistic system perspective of student success can help the institution anticipate and address potential attrition issues prior to enrollment. For example, the typical messaging for open enrollment online programs focuses on how easy and convenient online learning can be. While this message might be a reality for a diploma mill, a credible accredited program can require a different skill-set than students are used to in a traditional classroom, including an ability to learn in isolation, be self-directed in learning, and to manage time effectively to learn.

Understanding that student preparation is a key predictor of student success, marketing and enrollment can engage in helping students recognize the disconnect between where they want to be and showing them how the institution will work with them to set goals to take action that closes the gap.

Isolate the limitations a student brings to the classroom and remediate

More than anything the University can do, one of the most accurate predictors of student success is student preparation. This is why traditional institutions establish high acceptance standards with resulting high retention rates. Accepting students who have already proven successful in life helps assure high retention rates.

Institutions that open doors to underserved populations are essential for providing opportunities to those who cannot overcome barriers of traditional institutions. But, this does not become an excuse for boosting enrollment by pushing into the classroom students who lack the capacity and competency to succeed. Such practices are equivalent to recruiting high school students into the military and sending them directly to the front lines of combat. A few may survive, most will not.

This makes remediation programs essential for serving the developmental needs and fostering the success competencies of students in open enrollment institutions. Identifying the limitations a student brings to the classroom helps inform the remediation programs the University should implement to prepare the student for success in higher education. At least, students in open enrollment institutions deserve a "boot camp" that prepares them to thrive despite the challenges of higher education. 

Coordinate key student touch points

By coordinating student contact points among faculty and counselors, institutions can align front line resources to identify and address at risk behaviors. Such a connection can be established with an early alert process through which faculty can engage counselors to support interventions. In online environments, faculty and counselors can use shared analytics dashboards to monitor student engagement and performance, and independently initiate interventions based on shared data.

Develop a robust primary attrition research program

A comphrehensive primary research program can help an institution identify sources of problems that may contribute to attrition, and isolate attrition causes over which the University has control. A comprehensive primary research program can include drop surveys, continuance surveys, and completion surveys.

Drop surveys. Understanding that the a withdrawal rate is more of a symptom than a problem can help an institution avoid retention myopia that leads to diplomas without value and students without education. Basing retention initiatives on a tally of withdrawals can mean the institution is allocating resources to solve problems beyond its reach, while allowing the problems to fester. To understand what the college might do to correct internal problems that might contribute to student attrition, an institution can implement drop surveys to isolate the cause of withdrawals as they happen (Stover, 2005).

Continuance surveys. Dropout research and interventions are reactive actions that are often too late to prevent attrition. Dropout research "can be an inefficient use of resources" (Stover, 2005, 1). Bailey and Alfonso (2005) determined that more proactive approaches may improve student persistence and performance. Examples of proactive approaches to mitigate attrition risk include screening, remediation programs, early intervention with counseling and support services. To anticipate and proactively mitigate attrition, the institution may consider developing a process for measuring student motivation, satisfaction, self-efficacy, and commitment to graduate. Continuance surveys can help retention teams take proactive steps to support student persistence, and allow more timely and effective interventions with struggling or dissatisfied students.

Completion surveys. Understanding the internal and external factors that supported a student through graduation can help the college to develop processes and programs that leverage organizational and customer strengths for mutual benefit. Conducting surveys on successful graduates will help the college "differentiate students who stay from students who leave" (Habley & McClanahan, 22). Isolating the characteristics and behaviors of successful students can inform orientation, training, and reinforcement programs for helping other students develop success competencies.


Secondary research provides adult higher-education institution with a rich pool of ideas for strengthening student persistence to graduate by leveraging the relationship between faculty and student. However, the value of the secondary research is limited because it focuses almost exclusively on pedagogical models, while the dynamic nature of adult learner populations illuminates a more integrative instructional approach through which faculty actively engages with students. Another limitation of the existing literature is its tendency to focus on symptoms from an organizational perspective, rather than identifying the problem from a customer perspective. To address these limitations, the institution can consider undertaking research projects designed to address attrition from a student perspective, allowing the college to develop programs that align all customer contact points to support student persistence to graduate, resulting in stronger economic viability of the organization and increased academic credibility of the institution.

References Cited

Bailey, T. R. and Alfonso, M. (2005). "Paths to persistence: An analysis of research on program effectiveness at community colleges." Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, Vo. 6, Number 1, January 2005.

Berger, J. B. (2001, 2001-2002). Understanding the organizational nature of student persistence: empirically-based recommendations for practice. Journal of College Student Retention, 3(1), 3-21.

Bean, J. (2005). "Nine Themes of College Student Retention". College Student Retention, ed. Seidman, A. Westport: American Council on Education and Praegar Publishers.

Braxton, J. M.,  Milem, J. M. &   Sullivan, A. S. "The influence of active learning on the college student departure process." The Journal of Higher Education. Columbus: Sep/Oct 2000.Vol.71, Iss. 5;  pg. 569, 22 pgs. Extracted from ProQuest on April 10, 2007.

Curtis, S. (2005). Increasing student retention through benchmarking and organizational improvement. University of Southern California. Extracted from ProQuest. (UMI No. 3180491).

Dhar, R. and Glazer R. (2003). "Hedging customers." Harvard Business Review, May 2003, pp 87-92.

Duncan, B. (2007). Building faculty best practices that support student persistence: UBAM Content Meeting Presentation and Notes. University of Phoenix, February 24, 2007. Extracted on April 10, 2007 from

Escover, J. (2007, March 23). UBAM Area Chair Meeting, Pleasanton, CA.

Gansemer-Topf, A. M., & Schuh, J. H. (2003, 2003-2004). Instruction and academic support expenditures: an investment in retention and graduation. Journal of College Student Retention, 5(2), 135-145.

Habley, W. R., & McClanahan, R. (2004). What works in student retention? ACT, Inc.

Hossler, D. "Managing student retention: is the glass half full, half empty, or simply empty. College and University Journal, Vol. 81 no. 2. Fall 2006, 81, 2, page 11.

Meyer, C. and Schwager, A. (2007) "Understanding Customer Experience." Harvard Business Review, February 2007, pages 117-126.

Mortenson, T. G. (2005). Measurements of persistence. In A. Seidman (Ed.), College student retention (1 es., pp. 31-60). Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Tilley, Merten (2007). Facilitating learning: involving students and faculty in the active pursuit of knowledge. University of Phoenix faculty training session, February 24, 2007.

Seidman, A. (2005). Where do we go from here: a retention formula for student success. In A. Seidman (Ed.), College student retention (1 ed., pp. 295-316). Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Stover, C. (2005, August 15, 2005). Measuring--and understanding--student retention. Distance Education Report, 9(16), 1-7.

Tinto, V. (2002). Enhancing student persistence: connecting the dots. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin. Extracted on April 11, 2007 from

Tinto, V. (2005). Moving from theory to action. In A. Seidman (Ed.), College student retention (1 ed., pp. 295-316). Westport: Praeger Publishers.


Note: This article is based on presentations at the Fielding Graduate University 2007 Higher Education Conference and the University of Phoenix Bay Area Summer 2007 Faculty Conference.

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Cite the source as follows:

Duncan, B. (2008). Exploring faculty connections to student persistence in an adult higher education environment. (N. G. Khayrulina, Ed.) Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation News from Higher Education Institutions , 3 (18), 80-83.