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Current Research and Databases


The workshop featured presentations on a number of ongoing and past research projects on attrition. Both quantitative and qualitative studies were described; in some studies, both methods were employed. In the workshop, the presenters focused on the scope, methodology, and reliability of the data rather than on the findings. The projects are briefly summarized below in order of presentation at the workshop, the first three being primarily quantitative studies and the remainder, primarily qualitative.

Educational Testing Service top

Begun in 1987, this longitudinal study involved a survey of an original sample of 2,500 persons who took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in 1986. It tracked their subsequent enrollment, asking scaled questions about degree of satisfaction with the graduate program, degree aspirations, degrees obtained, costs of education, sources and amounts of financial support, and post-graduate employment and job satisfaction. Over a ten-year period, five surveys were made of the original sample. The response rate in the last survey (1995) was 80 percent of the 2,136 test takers who returned forms in the first survey. Two difficulties the study encountered were inaccurate reporting of financial aid and incomplete reporting and interpretation of data on students who interrupted their education, the so-called "in and out" phenomenon.

The best predictor of graduate school persistence through the fourth year of a program, the presenter said, was a student's attitude about the benefits of graduate school education. Other strong predictors were satisfaction with school progress and other students in the program, GRE scores, and self-reported undergraduate grades.

By 1995, 42 percent of the responding women and 38 percent of men reported the master's as their highest earned degree. Ten percent of the males and 6 percent of the females said they had the Ph.D., and an additional 4 percent of males and 3 percent of females claimed to be in the ABD status. In addition to the quantitative data, the survey collected individual open-ended stories that respondents were invited to write. The major shortcomings of the database are that it does not provide data for individual institutions and is minimally useful with respect to financial data, according to the presenter.

National Surveys of Recent College Graduates (NSRCG) and College Graduates (NSCG) top

These surveys are conducted by the National Science Foundation's Science Resources Studies (SRS) Division. The NSRCG follows a sample of individuals who had earned the bachelor's or a higher degree as of the 1990 census. Collected every two years, the data cover about 85 percent of the population trained in science and engineering.

The NSRCG, which has the greatest potential for analyzing attrition, started with a sample of about 19,000 science and engineering (S&E) students who received their BS or MS degree in the period 1990-92. In the 1995 survey of 1993-94 graduates, the sample dropped to 16,000, but the survey followed up on about 7,000 of the 1993 interviews. The survey covers such factors as educational history, degrees, prior attendance at a community college, field and degree being worked on, and post-graduate work and its relationship to the highest degree obtained. Specific items covered that might relate to attrition include undergraduate grade-point average, loans and amounts still owed, reasons for taking courses since their last degree, and reasons for not re-enrolling. One strength of the survey is that data on why students enter graduate school can be related to their personal history and other variables. The enrollees can then be compared with persons who decided against graduate school. Two shortcomings of the survey are that (1) it does not capture the exact timing of attrition nor the reasons for attrition and (2) it does not include data on non-S&E bachelor's degree recipients who pursue a graduate S&E degree. Some changes were underway that will improve attrition-related data in the 1997 survey.

Surveys of Earned Doctorates (SED) and Doctoral Recipients (SDR) top

The SED is a survey form distributed to graduate schools to be completed by all doctoral candidates (about 40,000 annually) shortly before or at the point of degree award. The SDR is a longitudinal survey of about 50,000 persons with doctoral degrees. They are surveyed every two years until they reach the age of 76. These SRS surveys tell nothing in and of themselves about attrition, because they do not capture those who have failed to complete their degree. Combined with other data, however, they could be potentially useful for studying attrition. To date, the files have been underutilized by researchers because of confidentiality issues. Researchers who wish to use the data at their home institutions can do so, however, with proper safeguards to the confidentiality of the data. For SED data, schools have always been able to gain access to data on their own graduates.

Urban Institute-Syracuse University Project on Doctoral Student Persistence top

Funded by an NSF grant, this project aims to bring out the substantial differences in the experiences of groups of doctoral students according to their program, field, and/or institution. The research focuses on underrepresented minority students, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, and on the effect of different types of financial aid on time to degree and completion rates for doctoral degrees. It covers the same departments at two institutions in four fields: natural science, physical science, social science, and engineering. Data have been collected via semi-structured interviews and focus groups with students, faculty members, and administrators.

From responses at focus groups and interviews, the students appeared to be very dissatisfied with the amount of teaching assistantship (TA) and research assistantship (RA) support available. Subsequent inquiries revealed that the cost of living in the area had almost doubled with no concomitant increase in payments for assistantships. Students who had fellowships complained about lack of health benefits. On the other hand, these students did not feel alienated from their departments, viewing the fellowship as a stepping stone to a research assistantship. TAs complained about the amount of time expected from them, and RAs about having to focus their research too narrowly. By adding such qualitative information to the study's quantitative data, the net result is not only more reliable research, but also research better geared to the development of future policy, the presenter said.

Contextual Factors in Graduate Student Attrition top

This study surveyed a sample of 816 students in the 1982 to 1984 entering cohorts in nine departments at each of two universities (selected from the top 40 Ph.D.-producing institutions in the United States). It covered both completers and non-completers. Follow-up telephone interviews were conducted with 30 of the non-completers as well as with department graduate study directors. This information was supplemented by face-to-face interviews with two faculty from each department, one who was a high producer of Ph.D.s and one who was a low producer. Rather than focusing on student characteristics, the study focused on the contextual factors in each department that shaped attrition. These involved differences between departments in terms of the opportunities they provide for integration of students into department life as measured by interaction with faculty and other graduate students on two levels-social (e.g., picnics, sports, parties) and academic (e.g., colloquia, collaboration on academic work) as well as the differences between high- and low-Ph.D. productive faculty.

The presenter described the study as highly exploratory. She found a significant correlation between the extent to which departments provide opportunities for integration and their attrition rates; and the effect was stronger and more significant when limited to opportunities for academic integration. Overall the data support the hypothesis that the more opportunities departments provide for integration (academic interaction in particular), the lower the attrition rate was in that department.

The study also assessed characteristics of faculty who are high producers of Ph.D. degrees compared to the low producers. The high-producing faculty, for example, were more likely to: scaffold their students' learning and model professional behavior by initially providing more intellectual support and withdrawing slowly as the student becomes more self-directing; co-author work with students and/or allow students to be the first author; refer to their students as friends and have their students to their homes.

The greater Ph.D.-productivity of faculty who engage in these ways with their students suggests that attrition is, in part, shaped by the type of faculty with whom a student becomes affiliated.

Urban Institute-Wake Forest: Case Studies of Black and Hispanic Doctoral Students top

These studies were carried out in the 1990-91 academic year at six highly rated public institutions, focusing on three departments in each in which significant numbers of the targeted minority students were located. These included psychology and education departments in all six and a third department, including history, criminology, sociology, biology, and life sciences. The research method involved use of focus groups composed of students, faculty, department chairs, graduate school administrators, and persons specifically concerned with minority graduate student recruitment and retention. Afterwards, cross-case study analyses were conducted.

The focus group responses point to several factors related to retention, according to the presenter: the presence of minority faculty, amount and duration of financial aid, and whether a student had a mentor or not. Mentored students seemed to have higher retention rates. The departmental differences are illustrated by the fact that retention rates for psychology departments were high at five of six institutions. In sharp contrast, only two of six education programs had high retention rates.

The study also revealed differences in student characteristics. Education students, for example, in comparison with their counterparts in the other disciplines, tended to be older, were more likely to be working while pursuing doctoral studies, and were also more likely to complain about financial aid. They also felt that white faculty had low expectations of them and that the focus of the curricula was narrowly Eurocentric.

Across the psychology departments, policies toward minority retention were more similar than they were across other departments. Psychology department faculty, for example, were usually viewed as supportive and encouraging to student study groups. In addition, a grievance mechanism was available to students, and students played active roles on departmental admissions committees. Within departments, the clinical programs tended to have more supportive environments, more positive racial climates, and more minority faculty.

Discussing minority student retention across departments, the presenter concluded that in departments that support and value all students, minority students fare equally as well as their non-minority peers.

American Institute of Physics (AIP) Survey of Physics Graduate Students top

This ongoing study employs a "roster approach," gathering data on enrollments in graduate physics programs along with degrees awarded. Although AIP has collected names of graduate students in physics departments for the last 20 years or more, it has only recently begun to collect names of Ph.D. recipients. It will be a few more years, therefore, before it will be possible to determine more precisely the numbers of those who are unsuccessful in obtaining the degree. The findings of the study so far provide "very rough aggregate numbers," according to the presenter. Looking at 10 years of data on entering U.S. students, a fairly steady number-ranging from 15 to 20 percent-come out with a master's degree two years after enrollment. About 45 percent of those entering with the aim of getting a Ph.D. actually come out with the doctorate six years later.

Association of American Universities (AAU)/Association of Graduate Schools (AGS) Project for Research on Doctoral Education top

Initiated in 1989, the project goal has been to develop a national longitudinal database to track the flow of students through doctoral programs in the arts, sciences, and engineering. Currently, about 40 institutions of the 61 AAU members participate. Annual data sets include basic demographic information, contextual background information, GRE scores, field of study, and financial aid data. The project is designed to provide data for departments to compare features of their programs with other programs, according to the presenter. Fields covered include biochemistry, English, economics, mathematics, chemical and mechanical engineering, history, physics, political science, and psychology.

Difficulties arise, however, in using the database to compare retention and attrition rates. These are due, for example, to variations in how institutions:

In addition, there are sometimes data entry or information system problems, such as unexplained changes in demographic data (a male student suddenly becoming female in the fifth year of the program). All these potential issues are confronted by researchers attempting to analyze the data, and they highlight the need for more accurate data collection.

Graduate School-Based Studies of Attrition/Retention top

The focus of individual graduate school studies to date has been on completion rates not on attrition, according to a presenter who surveyed 250 graduate school administrators. The types of studies done reflect administrators' concerns with the practical issue of devising policies that can be acted upon in the near term. They include measures of completion, flow analysis studies, and comprehensive quantitative/qualitative studies. Some universities put such information on the World Wide Web. The University of Wisconsin at Madison, for instance, posts data for each department, including the size of the starting cohorts and current numbers of master's or doctorate degrees awarded. The University of Michigan site shows retention or attrition across time, revealing relatively heavy attrition early in the program and nearly zero in the out years. Examples of the comprehensive approach include the University of California at Berkeley and a Mellon Project in the Humanities. The latter covers 10 institutions and 50 departments within those institutions. Selected data presented at the workshop showed large differences in completion rates among the institutions, even within one field. In sociology, for example, it varied from a low of 38 percent to a high of 52 percent. The institutions doing the studies are also mounting efforts to enhance student participation, increase the flow to degree, and tailor financial aid to the different stages of the graduate process.


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