Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Degree Program

Sociology (Applied), PhD

Committee Chair

Carini, Robert

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Brooms, Derrick

Committee Member

Brooms, Derrick

Committee Member

Christopher, Karen

Committee Member

Gast, Melanie

Committee Member

Hirschy, Amy

Author's Keywords

stopout; retention; persistence; student success; college; returners


Higher education research often looks at student retention as a dichotomous outcome, either students stay enrolled or not; however, students’ enrollment pathways are more complicated than that as they frequently transfer, swirl between institutions, and stopout and return. This study was designed to explore students who stopout and return to the same institution within their six-year graduation window. More specifically, I sought to learn who stops out, why they stopout, what happens while out, why they come back, and what may be different upon their return. Four conceptual frameworks were applied to understand students’ experiences with stopping out including Tinto’s (1993) theory of college student departure, Arnett’s (2004) theory of emerging adulthood, Baxter Magolda’s (2001) theory of self-authorship, and Bourdieu’s (1986) theory of social reproduction. Participants of this study were students at a large, public research institution who initially enrolled in fall 2010 or 2011. I employed a mixed methods investigation to explore the complexities of stopping out. I conducted 27 in-depth interviews and conducted a constant comparative method of analysis to explore students’ motivations and decision-making regarding decisions of whether to and where to apply, initial enrollment, stopping out, and returning. Qualitative findings revealed that students enrolled in college out of obligation with little personal motivation and quickly struggled to engage academically as they faced the uncertainty with why they were in college. Few students identified utilizing support services, such as advising or meeting with faculty, during their initial enrollment. Students chose to leave the institution due to their uncertainty and lack of academic engagement. While they were not enrolled, students learned about themselves and found academic interests leading them to return to college for themselves instead of enrolling due to familial or societal expectations. Finally, upon returning, participants actively engaged with their academics and defined the value of their college education as more than simply a credential. Institutional records were used to conduct quantitative secondary analyses on two full cohort populations. There were approximately 5000 students in the fall 2010 and fall 2011 cohorts combined, and the analyses covered their entire 6-year windows. Bivariate chi-square and ANOVA tests were utilized to understand the characteristics of the stopout population relative to the total population as well as the other enrollment pathways; binary logistic regression was used to identify factors that predicted stopping out; and multinomial logistic regression was used to investigate factors that predicted stopping out compared to other pathways (graduates, persisters, and nonpersisters). Results revealed that stopouts were a small (less than 4%) portion of the student population and that academic performance as demonstrated by GPA and financial aid received were the most significant variables in predicting stopping out, as well as differentiating stopping out from other pathways. This study’s findings revealed how students’ developmental needs and challenges impacted their integration, including their utilization of resources and their enrollment, at the institution under study. Thus, the four conceptual frameworks integrated to explain the experiences of stopouts. As emerging adults, stopouts had not yet developed their self-authorship for their life’s path and struggled with the instability of their present and future. In what was perceived as an unsupportive campus environment, their struggles were amplified by their lack of academic integration that resulted in an inability and/or unwillingness to work with faculty and staff to work through them. Taking time off of college allowed participants to develop their internal voice and return to college with a purpose and the confidence to integrate academically. Departing from previous retention research, this study uncovered the significant influence students’ uncertainty played in their ability to integrate as the interviewees described leaving the institution to do the work of self-discovery. Several recommendations are made for institutions to apply a more developmental approach to uncertainty and integration by focusing on institutional culture, pedagogy, and student services. By acknowledging and implementing programs to address the developmental and integration needs of students, institutions may see their retention and graduation of both would-be stopouts and would-be dropouts improve.