The decision by students not to persist in their academic pursuit—is a complex phenomenon. College administrators and researchers have been relentless in their quest to understand why students who begin attending colleges drop out at notably high rates. According to Braxton, Hirschy and McClendon (2004), 45% of two-year college students and 25% of four-year college students leave college before completing their first year (p. 1). For nearly three-quarters of a century, researchers have advanced and tested theories intended to explain why some students and not others decide to leave college before achieving their personal goals.

The following theory of student departure has evolved over nearly 20 years of first hand experience with college students in three associate degree granting career colleges located in New England. Each of the schools operated as a for-profit business. The ownership structure varied from closely held private corporations to a major publicly traded company. This context is significant because the theory of student departure espoused here emanates from a consumer model of higher education. In this for-profit perspective, student and customer are synonymous. Some might argue, “the consumer model of higher education is fraught with both intellectual and moral problems” (Potts, 2005, p. 55); however, there are significant flaws in Potts’ logic (a discussion that is beyond the scope of this paper).

This consumer-oriented theory of student departure is grounded in the traditional theory of student choice—a theory that explains the developmental process involved in a student’s decision to attend college, influences his/her choice of colleges and follow-through on the enrollment commitment. By showing the relationship between student choice theory, buyer behavior, and student retention theories, this paper posits that student departure is a consumer decision. This student departure theory has not been tested for validity or generalizability; however, in practice, programs have been developed through the lens of this theory that have resulted in improved student retention in all three institutions.

The Consumer Behavior Theory of Student Departure

The consumer behavior theory of student departure can be summarized as follows: Students leave colleges before completing their programs of study because they are unable to reaffirm their initial buying decision.

Students experience a variety of influences throughout their lifetime that lead them to make the decision to attend college and help them to determine which college to attend, which program to take, what extracurricular activities to participate in and other college related choices. This series of decisions constitutes a complex buying decision. Each time the student has an opportunity to revisit the decision by enrolling for subsequent terms or by deciding whether to withdraw before the end of an enrollment period, the student revisits his/her original buying decision. When the student’s college experience is not congruent with his/her expectations, does not provide the benefits s/he anticipated, or in some other way fails to validate the decision to attend college (essentially, does not result in student/customer satisfaction), the student opts to withdraw (or fails to re-enroll). Essentially, the decision is not to buy again. It is important, then that the student’s buying decision be affirmed by his/her experience. Understanding the factors that lead students to their initial enrollment decision is key to developing programs for decreasing the instances of premature student departure (that is, improving student retention).

This white paper seeks to define the consumer behavior theory of student departure by explaining student college choice theory and drawing a comparison between student choice, consumer buying behavior and certain elements of more traditional retention theories.

Student College Choice Theory and Buying Behavior

To understand why students leave colleges without completing their programs, it is important to understand the process through which students make the initial choice to attend college. Student college choice theory, student choice, and consumer buying behavior (buying behavior) aid in understanding this process. DesJardins (2002) summarizes the student choice literature noting that “student enrollment behavior is related to students’ individual characteristics and their preferences about the institution(s) they are considering” (p. 533). According to student choice theory, there are three stages in the decision process: college aspirations, college choice, and college admission and matriculation (DesJardins, 2002). These three stages can be matched to the three stages of complex buying behavior during which consumers are developing beliefs, developing attitudes, and making buying decisions (Kotler, 2003). It is not difficult to draw the comparison between the student choice process and buying behavior: College aspirations=developing beliefs, college choice=developing attitudes, and college admission/matriculation=making buying decisions.

In the student choice cycle, students who follow the traditional college path begin to form college aspirations very early in life. It is then that they begin developing beliefs about the value of education and career aspirations. In this early stage, students are highly influenced by cultural, social, demographic and psychographic factors. This stage of the student choice cycle generally occurs during the student’s formative years, a time when critical values are being transmitted to children from their birth families including their perception of achievement and success. How students relate their aspirations for achievement and success to the college experience is influenced by subcultural factors including race, religion and geographic region (Kotler, 2003). This first stage of student choice (college aspirations) is the context-specific illustration of the first stage of buying behavior (developing beliefs).

The second stage of student choice generally develops during the student’s last two years of high school (DesJardins, 2002). During this developmental phase, students are developing attitudes about college attendance and are most likely influenced by the social factors of reference, membership, aspirational and dissociative groups (Kotler, 2003). According to Kotler, reference groups are those people who have some influence over a person’s attitudes and can impact their behaviors (e.g. family), while membership groups (e.g. peers) have more direct influence. Further influence in this second stage may come from school guidance counselors or teachers acting in the role of opinion leaders (Kotler, 2003). This student choice stage mirrors the second stage of buying behavior where students/consumer begin developing attitudes, in this case about college attendance and the colleges themselves. It is in this second stage of the student choice buying decision that students begin to apply to the colleges they have identified as preferred colleges.

The third stage in the student choice process is the point at which the student actually makes the buying (college choice) decision (DesJardins, 2002). Most colleges experience a gap between the number of applicants who are accepted and the number who actually enroll in the institution. Three primary factors account for this lack of follow through on the initial buying decision: The attitude of others, unanticipated situational factors and perceived risk. Furthermore, any one of five post purchase sub decisions is likely to influence the student’s commitment to enroll in a particular institution (Kotler, 2003).
Not all students follow the traditional path from high school directly into college. Non-traditional students include those over 24 years old who decide to attend college for the first time and adults who decide to go to college to improve their work place skills or train for a new career. Although these prospective students are likely to have experienced the same student choice phases early in life, demographic factors including age, family size, family life cycle, gender, income, occupation, education, religion, race, generation, nationality and social class are most likely to influence the prospective student’s buying decision for non-traditional students. For both traditional and non-traditional students, psychographic factors are likely to further influence the buying behavior including lifestyle, personality, values, occasions, benefits, and attitude (Kotler, 2003).

That the student college choice decision is a buying decision is clear from this brief description. Consumer buying decisions are developed over time as beliefs and attitudes are applied to the decision-making process. This is consistent with the developmental stages of student choice theory. Many of the same factors that influence student choice and buyer behavior have been proposed as contributing factors in several student retention theories. These retention theories are summarized below.

Student Retention Theory

Researchers have advanced multiple theories about why students leave colleges. Cook (2005) and Seidman (2005) summarize those theories which are further summarized here: Academic achievement and financial considerations (Hoke, 1922; Tallman, 1927; Iffert, 1957; Ivey, 1966), socioeconomic background and student involvement (Astin, 1964, 1977, 1985; Swell and Shah, 1967), personal attributes of students (Summerskill, 1962; Astin, 1964; Heilbrun, 1965), student expectation of persistence (Marks, 1967), expectation/experience congruence (Shaw, 1968), institutional characteristics (Kamens, 1971, 1974), “nonintellective” variables (Morrisey, 1971), student attitude and faculty interaction (Pascarella and Terenzini 1977, 1978, 1979), person-environment fit (Spady, 1971; Witt & Handal, 1984), academic satisfaction/performance/extracurricular involvement (Aitken, 1982), academic achievement compared to high school (Getzalf, 1984), undeclared major (Gordon, 1985), environmental factors including assimilation (Bean and Metzner, 1985; Christie and Premoy, 1991), academic and social integration (Spady, 1971; Tinto, 1975, 1993; Braxton, 1988), loans/grants/scholarships (St.John, 1989; Cabrera, 1992), peer group (Astin, 1993; Carroll, 1988; Dukes & Gaither, 1984; Faughn, 1982; Johnson & Chapman, 1980; Mallinckrodt, 1988; Malinckrodt & Sedlacek, 1987; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991), ethnicity and social integration process (Marguia, Padilla, and Pavel, 1991), family support (Allen, 1994), extent of personal and emotional adjustment (Gerdes, 1994), and being a first-generation student (Riehl, 1994).
Among those theories presented in A Retention Theory Primer (Cook, 2005), Spady (1971) and Tinto (1975, 1993) have components that most closely resonate with the theory of student departure advanced here. Spady (1971) points to socioeconomic factors and student compatibility with the institutional environment. Tinto attributes “background characteristics (e.g., social status, high school experiences, neighborhood, etc.), expectations, and motivational attributes individuals bring to college [as] important factors” (Cook, 2005, p. 7) having significant influence on student persistence. “The greater the congruence between the student’s values, goals, and attitudes and those of the college, the more likely that the student will persist at the college” (Seidman, 2001).


It is this concept of congruence that ties together the concepts of student choice, buying decision and student departure (retention theory). The convergence of these seemingly disparate theories allows us to draw different conclusions that will be useful in developing retention strategies. Student’s values, goals, and attitudes influence the student college choice. Student college choice is a consumer transaction. As consumers, students will evaluate their experience of college in much the same way they evaluate other consumer decisions. When students choose to enroll or not enroll in each subsequent term they are reaffirming (or denying) their previous commitments and buying decisions. Retention at its very core is a continuous buying decision. Students’ decisions to continue correlate to their initial decision to attend. To understand why students depart—and more importantly, to influence student retention—attrition must be viewed and addressed as a consumer decision. Institutions viewing students attrition through this new paradigm will see the value of customer service and customer satisfaction and will develop programs to address these concerns, and by doing so, will address the myriad of student concerns addressed in the retention literature.


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Cook, J. (2005). A Retention Primer. Minneapolis, MN: Capella University
DesJardins, S.L. (2002). An analytic strategy to assist institutional recruitment and marketing efforts. Research in Higher Education 43(5). Retrieved November 8, 2006, from ERIC EJ655973
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