Critical Review of Literature

The main function of the literature review in the present analysis is to provide a theoretical framework that guides the selection of variables as predictors of dropping out of postsecondary education. To set the stage for the present analysis, a brief review of the issue of dropping out of postsecondary education in Canada is appropriate, followed by a detailed review of major influential theories on reasons why youth do drop out of postsecondary education.

Current Status of Dropping out of Postsecondary Education in Canada

According to the Daily (Statistics Canada, June 16, 2004), although most Canadian youths went on to further studies after high school, not all stayed until postsecondary graduation, as indicated in the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS) data. Specifically, in December 2001, by the age of 22, about 11% of Canadian youths had left postsecondary education without graduating, and about one-third completed at least one postsecondary credential (13% were continuing their postsecondary education after having already graduated). Adding to the complexity of the issue is the fact that dropping out of postsecondary education does not necessarily mean a halt to higher education altogether. About 35% of those who had left postsecondary education in an earlier survey when they were 20 did return by the time they were 22.

Following the same national sample of Canadian youth for two more years, Shaienks et al. (2006) reported that:

The postsecondary dropout rate in December 2003 was 12% for Canada overall, higher than the high school dropout rate recorded. Given the age of the respondents, this rate is likely to change again in the years to come. The vast majority of provinces had a dropout rate somewhere between 10% and 12%, with Prince Edward Island posting the lowest rate, at 9%, and Nova Scotia the highest, at 16%. As with the high school dropouts, the postsecondary dropouts returned to this type of institution. Nearly half of youth who had left a postsecondary institution as of December 1999 returned within the next four-year period. One in four had eventually graduated as of December 2003. (p. 15).

Shaienks et al. (2006) also provided a detailed decomposition of the Canadian youth who, in December 2003, were 22 years old and not in high school. About 76% attended postsecondary education, whereas about 24% did not. Among those attending postsecondary education, about 12% graduated, about 21% were continuers, and about 12% were dropouts. Finally, although nearly half of postsecondary education dropouts returned, Shaienks et al. (2006) emphasized that it is more difficult for youth to come back as they get older and have children.

Tinto’s (1993) Theory of Postsecondary Education Student Attrition

In 1993, Vincent Tinto published his landmark book on postsecondary education student attrition entitled Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (2nd ed.). The first edition of the book was published in 1987. His original theory on postsecondary education student attrition was subjected to vigorous criticism and testing for five years. In the second edition, Tinto substantially improved his original theory by incorporating many philosophical critiques and injecting much empirical evidence into his conceptual framework. Citing Braxton, Milem, and Sullivan (2000, p. 107), Guiffrida (2006, p. 451) stated that “Tinto’s (1993) theory of student departure is the most widely cited theory for explaining the student departure process and has reached ‘near paradigmic status’ in the field of higher education.” In the present analysis, we adopted Tinto’s (1993) theory as our theoretical framework to guide a longitudinal multivariate analysis designed to profile postsecondary education dropouts and discern reasons for postsecondary education student attribution in Canada.

As an overview, Tinto’s (1993) theory is essentially a multivariate model of student retention in postsecondary institutions to explain student departure from postsecondary education prior to graduation. He posits that individual pre-postsecondary education attributes (family background, individual skill and ability, and secondary schooling quality) form individual goals and commitments for postsecondary education. Once the individual enters postsecondary education, those individual goals and commitments interact constantly with institutional attributes (i.e., characteristics of the formal and informal academic and social environments). The extent to which the individual is able to academically and socially integrate into the formal and informal academic and social environments of the institution determines whether the individual persists through postsecondary education or drops out of postsecondary education. In general, integration and affiliation are the two key concepts that form the conceptual basis of Tinto’s (1993) model. In a book published in the same year entitled What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited, Astin (1993) also emphasized those concepts for they are central to students’ development and progress in postsecondary education.

Tinto (1993) sees integration as a process in which the individual actively engages and involves in activities within the postsecondary education community. He distinguishes between social integration and academic integration. Social integration occurs when the individual develops strong and effective social ties primarily as a result of daily interactions with other members of the community. Academic integration results from sharing common information, perspectives, and values with other members of the community. Overall, integration measures the extent to which the individual identifies with as well as shares and incorporates the normative attitudes and values of instructors and classmates. Satisfactory interaction with the formal and informal academic and social environments of the institution leads to greater integration resulting in persistence. Unpleasant interaction on the other hand discourages integration resulting in lack of persistence. Academic and social integration can be influenced by a variety of factors, including family background characteristics, educational experiences before postsecondary education, and previous academic achievement.

The concept of affiliation or membership captures the multiple communities on campus. Tinto (1993) considers it important for the individual to have multiple affiliations without adopting a single or predominant set of social and academic norms. Being willing to associate with and becoming accepted into an affinity group is critical to individual development and progress in postsecondary education. Affinity groups offer social and academic support that the individual needs to sustain effort through postsecondary education. Sociological research clearly suggests that membership is composed of two dimensions (e.g., Bollen & Hoyle, 1990): One is a sense of belonging; the other is a feeling of morale association.

Tinto (1993) admits that integration and membership are not two separate processes. In fact, he stated that “the concept of ‘membership’ is more useful than ‘integration’ because it implies a greater diversity of participation” (p. 106). Inference from this statement to researchers is that every effort needs to be made to adequately measure the quality of individual membership on campus. Nevertheless, the key measure is the lack of fit (or the level of fit) between the individual and the institution. The individual who has norms, values, and ideas congruent with those of the institution is more likely to persist and graduate from postsecondary education.

Since the publication of Tinto (1993), a new wave of empirical studies has been conducted to examine his revised theory of postsecondary education student attrition. The importance of integration, often examined in the form of engagement and involvement, has been generally supported, and the critical role of membership has also been largely confirmed by recent empirical studies (e.g., Guiffrida, 2003; Handelsman, Briggs, Sullivan, & Towler, 2005; Heisserer & Parette, 2002; Miller & Pope, 2003; Ryan & Glenn, 2003; Schnell & Doetkott, 2003; Zhao, Kuh, & Carini, 2005). Seidman (1996, p. 18) stated that “the Tinto (1975, 1987, 1993) model of retention/attrition has been widely examined, tested and accepted by the educational community since it was first published in 1975.”

The major limitation of Tinto’s (1993) theory that researchers have found relates to his assertion that students must “break away” from past associations and traditions in order to successfully integrate into the (formal and informal) social and academic environments of postsecondary education. Critics have argued that many postsecondary education students, especially religious and minority ones, depend exactly on traditional ties and associations to gain spiritual, cultural, and even material support that sustains them through postsecondary education (Guiffrida, 2005; Kuh & Love, 2000; Rendon, Jalomo, & Nora, 2000; Walker & Schultz, 2001). In conducting the present analysis, both the theory’s success in recognizing the importance of integration and membership and the theory’s failure in recognizing the importance of cultural norms guided us when we considered variables used to predict postsecondary education student attrition and profile postsecondary education dropouts. Tinto (1993) has identified three groups of variables that predict postsecondary education persistence: (a) pre-postsecondary education attributes, (b) integration attributes, and (c) membership attributes.

Pre-postsecondary education attributes as predictors of postsecondary education student attrition. The first group of variables that influence postsecondary education student attrition pertains primarily to pre-postsecondary education conditions of the individual. It includes individual disposition, family background, academic skill and ability, and secondary schooling quality. One important individual disposition is the individual’s intention to go to postsecondary education. Manifestation of this intention can often be gagued by the extent to which the individual has indicated clear educational and occupational goals and has thought through potential career options to make a career decision prior to entrance into postsecondary education. Other important individual dispositions include the commitment of the individual to meet his or her educational and occupational goals and the extent to which the individual has prepared himself or herself to willingly comply with the academic and social expectations of postsecondary education.

Integration attributes as predictors of postsecondary education student attrition. Tinto (1993) describes integration mainly in the form of the interactional experiences that the individual has socially and academically after entering postsecondary education, including the quality of individual interactions with other members of the postsecondary education institution (for social and academic supports), the extent to which the individual perceives those interactions as meeting his or her norms, needs, and interests, and the amount of contact with faculty and social networks (for social and academic purposes). Most measures of social and academic integration deal with perception. To a large extent, Tinto (1993) adopted Spady’s (1971) empirical definition of perceived integration that emphasizes the subjective sense of being able to fit in on campus, the perception of the existence of warm interpersonal relationships, and the feeling of being unpressured by normative difference with the social and academic environments on campus. This is to say that Spady (1971) and Tinto (1993) have essentially argued that perceptions are valid measures of social and academic integration. This is good news for secondary data analysis of large-scale survey databases in that almost all surveys measure perceptions.

Membership attributes as predictors of postsecondary education student attrition. In Tinto (1993), membership, also an interactional factor by nature, measures the degree to which the individual is socially and academically associated with the postsecondary education community, including informal friendships (on social and academic basis), supportive groups (for social and academic purposes), and participation in extracurricular activities (social and academic). These membership issues are examined within the context of sense of belonging and feeling of morale association. Simply put, membership is an identity issue. Identification with a group based on common or shared morale norms or values is the basis for any membership to occur. Bollen and Hoyle (1990) believe that both cognitive and affective elements are needed for such an occurrence. The individual evaluates his or her role in relation to the group cognitively and such a cognitive appraisal results in an affective response. Implication to empirical research is that both cognitive and affective reactions to campus groups need to be considered in selecting variables measuring membership.

Finally, Tinto (1993) believes that individual integration and membership are often facilitated or hindered by internal and external conditions of the individual, including academic adjustment (a common indicator is grade point average or GPA), preparatory participation (in supportive programs such as orientation), external commitment (family or community duties), and financial need (for tuition, learning material, and accommodation).

Lotkowski’s (2004) Meta-analysis of Postsecondary Education Student Attrition

Tinto’s (1993) theory of postsecondary education student attrition is our major theoretical framework in that it draws up a blueprint that identifies major players in the issue of postsecondary education persistence. In this sense, Tinto (1993) provides us with what we call structural building blocks. That is, we know that pre-postsecondary education condition, integration, and membership are building blocks for our longitudinal multivariate model. On the other hand, many empirical studies have looked into each block in an effort to identify the critical components of each block. Fortunately, we have identified a recent meta-analysis (a form of quantitative synthesis of empirical studies) of factors influencing postsecondary education student attrition, and we have employed this meta-analysis as our supplementary theoretical framework.

Lotkowski, Robbins, and Noeth’s (2004) meta-analysis, The Role of Academic and Non-academic Factors in Improving College Retention, is largely based on Tinto’s (1993) theory. Because we adopted Tinto (1993) as our major theoretical framework, conceptual consistence between our major and supplementary theoretical frameworks was obtained. This meta-analysis has synthesized out critical academic and non-academic factors (related to pre-postsecondary education condition, integration, and membership) among empirical studies which demonstrate great promises in predicting postsecondary education persistence. Coming from Lotkowski et al. (2004, p. 6), Table 1 identifies variables that need to be considered in empirical data analysis of postsecondary education student attrition.

Table 1 Meta-analytical Results on Academic and Non-academic Factors Influencing College Student Attrition
Academic goalsLevel of commitment to obtain a college degree.
Achievement motivationLevel of motivation to achieve success.
Academic self-confidenceLevel of academic self-confidence (of being successful in the academic environment).
Academic-related skillsTime management skills, study skills, and study habits.
Contextual influencesThe extent to which students receive financial aid, institution size and selectivity.
General self-conceptLevel of self-confidence and self-esteem.
Institutional commitmentLevel of confidence in and satisfaction with institutional choice.
Social supportLevel of social support a student feels that the institution provides.
Social involvementExtent to which a student feels connected to the college environment (peers, faculty, campus activities).
ACT Assessment scoreCollege preparedness measure in English, mathematics, reading, and science.
High school grade pointCumulative grade point average student average (HSGPA) earned from all high school courses.
Socioeconomic statusParents’ educational attainment and family income.
Note: Adopted from Lotkowski, Robbins, and Noeth (2004).

Lotkowski et al. (2004) described their meta-analysis in relation to the above table and especially how they identified those factors as influential to postsecondary education student attrition:

We used a meta-analysis technique to identify which non-academic factors had the most salient relationship to postsecondary retention. We also identified the extent to which each factor predicted postsecondary retention. This procedure allowed the identification of those factors that were the best indicators of the risk for postsecondary dropout. We also identified the relative contributions of the more traditional academic predictors of college retention including socioeconomic status (SES), high school GPA, and postsecondary readiness scores (ACT Assessment scores). Once identified, the salient nonacademic factors, together with the more traditional academic factors, were examined to see which the best indicators of risk for dropping out were. (p. 5).

We are confident that our major and supplementary theoretical frameworks have provided us with not only a general blueprint of critical structures but also a detailed synthesis of critical factors concerning postsecondary education student attrition. Our selection of variables in relation to the YITS data has therefore been greatly enhanced by these theoretical frameworks. Even the specification of our longitudinal multivariate models has benefited greatly from these theoretical frameworks.