Measuring student retention at an online institution of higher education

Wallace E. Boston, University of Pennsylvania


Student persistence or retention has been a documented issue in higher education in the United States since the late 1800s. While much has been written about the topic of retention at the more traditional types of institutions, little has been written about retention at the online institutions of higher learning that have developed since the early 1990s. Research regarding the persistence rates of students in online degree programs at online institutions could provide guidance on ways in which to diagnose and improve online student retention during a period of anticipated growth in enrollments and during a period where the nation's ability to increase the capacity of traditional education is financially difficult. This study uses descriptive statistics and multiple regressions to analyze the relationship between demographic and academic performance data and student retention at an online university. The results of the analysis were used to propose alternative data collection methodologies for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for online institutions. IPEDS collects graduation rates for first time, full time freshmen. The majority of students at online institutions are adults who complete their degrees on a part-time basis. Many have earned academic credits at a previously attended institution. Online students may take as long as 10 years to earn a bachelor's degree, not counting the time for credits earned elsewhere. The regression analysis demonstrates that the independent variables with the most significance toward student disenrollment or dropout were no transfer of academic credit hours, a lower number of courses taken by the student in the first year, and grades of F or W in their last class completed. The descriptive analysis indicates that almost 30 percent of new students dropout from online institutions before completing the equivalent of one full-time academic semester. The research concludes by proposing that IPEDS match its completions data collected against annual new student starts to track the retention of the large number of part-time students attending online colleges and universities.

Subject Area

Higher Education Administration|Educational technology|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Boston, Wallace E., "Measuring student retention at an online institution of higher education" (2010). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3410483.