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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, the University of Phoenix College of Undergraduate Business and Management (UBAM or college) conducted internal research to determine best practices for fostering adult-student goal commitment at its San Francisco Bay Area campus. This paper reviews key lessons and limitations the current attrition literature offers for meeting student persistence 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 research projects for discovering antecedents 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 with open enrollment 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, there are some important limitations when applying secondary research to adult learning models, including a mismatched perspective between pedagogical and androgical models, 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, University of Phoenix has pioneered an andragogical model that uses practitioner-faculty to facilitate knowledge among working professionals. These different perspectives likely require different approaches for supporting student persistence. 

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. To adapt to the emerging student demographic, college faculty seems to be shifting from an andragogical facilitation environment to a "multigogical" methodology that balances pedagogical and andragogical practices to meet the developmental needs of a dynamically diverse student population. In other words, the faculty member is becoming an "active participant in the learning process with the student" (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 customer experience (Meyer & Schwager, 2007). Viewing attrition problems from the customer 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 graduate--while enhancing the long-term viability of the institution.

 Faculty practices that foster student persistence

While UBAM continues searching the decades of available attrition research for ideas to advance student persistence, Sarah Curtis points out that "the most valuable research for an institution will be the research conducted on that institution's own population" (2005, 17). With Curtis' counsel in mind, and understanding the vital connection between faculty and student commitment, UBAM conducted internal research into faculty practices that can best support adult students to achieve academic goals in higher education. Following is a summary of key practices UBAM faculty recommend 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 attending the institution.
  • Integrate. Help students reduce the juggling act between personal, professional, and academic life compartments by helping them create opportunities for integrating projects, processes, and perspectives for more effective personal development--inside and outside the classroom.
  • 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 University model provides 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. 

 Research proposals

To help develop programs that actively foster student persistence, the college can do the following: consider implementing primary research programs designed to identify the source of internal problems that may contribute to attrition; discover the proper steps for resolving attrition problems that the college can control, and; anticipate attrition so administration teams can intervene to build student goal commitment, and isolate the characteristics of graduating students to leverage success. Following are specific research proposals that adult higher-education environments might consider for achieving the above objectives:

Drop surveys

With existing UBAM research showing that for every three withdrawals (Ws) from classes, two students leave the University (Escover, 2007), UBAM is paying special attention to W grades. Addressing the W symptom alone may significantly reduce attrition rates. However, a college practice of simply tallying the W grades may address a solitary symptom while allowing a serious problem to fester. To understand better what the college might do to correct internal problems that might contribute to student attrition (Stover, 2005), that college may consider developing research designed to understand the cause of each W grade as it happens.

Continuance surveys

Dropout research alone can be a reactive process that prompts action that is too late to prevent attrition. In other words, dropout research is important, but "can be an inefficient use of resources" (Stover, 2005, 1). Bailey and Alfonso (2005) determined that early intervention with counseling and support services for struggling or dissatisfied students may improve their persistence and academic performance. To anticipate attrition, the college 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) to isolate and actively develop student competencies that contribute to academic success. 


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 University of Phoenix is evolving toward a "multigogical" approach through which faculty actively engages in meeting the developmental needs of an increasingly dynamic student body. 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 college should consider undertaking research projects designed to address attrition from its customer 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 paper 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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Duncan, B., & Genin, V. (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. Extracted on [date] from