In designing attrition research, researchers face certain conceptual difficulties. The discussion at the workshop brought out various alternative phrases that might be used to describe research that yields data on attrition, such as doctoral student persistence (which implies tracking students through various phases of their graduate education), completion rates (which measure only final outcomes), and retention (which focuses on continuing registration in the original doctoral program or department of choice). None of these, however, is considered to be an exact mirror of attrition, because of the uncertainty surrounding the status of students who leave.
Other issues raised included whether all attrition is necessarily a problem and what would be an acceptable level of attrition.
Is Attrition all Bad?
A frequent comment was that some attrition should be considered inevitable, and therefore not necessarily undesirable. In fact, some viewed a certain degree of attrition as a societal gain rather than a loss. Examples cited are students who transfer to pursue a degree in another field or who leave for work that employs their graduate training. Such cases, by one informal estimate, might account for 20-40 percent of "non-completers." This group should not be included in attrition statistics, since they go on to productive lives elsewhere. In this light, the problem might be viewed as one of converting later attrition to earlier attrition in order to minimize the investment lost from students dropping out at the latter stages of their graduate experience. Another view was that attrition represents student adjustment to expectations about future employment and possible surfeit of doctoral students.
The uncertainty about what actually happens to students who leave their original graduate school program was generally seen as highlighting the need for more accurate information on the real extent and context of attrition.
Acceptable Levels of Attrition
Assuming an overall measure of attrition could be arrived at, the workshop participants gave a fairly wide range of rates that would be acceptable, all below 50 percent. One speaker said that if the overall rate was as low as 10 to 15 percent, attrition probably would not be considered a problem. Another said that even if attrition were about 50 percent, that is not as bad as it sounds. Still another felt that 20-40 percent might be "perfectly acceptable."Given these variations and uncertainties about completion or attrition rates, no consensus emerged on what would be an acceptable overall level of attrition.