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College Student Persistence

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What are some important higher education transitions that affect college student persistence?



The posting below looks at some important higher education transitions that affect college student persistence. It is from Chapter 2 – How Can Peer Mentoring Help Address the Crisis of College Students Not Completing Their Degrees?, in the book Developing Effective Student Peer Mentoring Programs: A Practitioner’s Guide to Program Design, Delivery, Evaluation, and Training, by Peter J. Collier.  Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2015 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Maxed Out



Tomorrow’s Academy


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College Student Persistence


What Are Some Important Higher Education Transitions That Affect College Student Persistence?

All the college student persistence models presented in this chapter are overarching, general models in that they try to explain students’ persistence-related experiences regardless of where students enter higher education. However, higher education transitions are key points in the larger process of college student persistence. Examining the different ways students make the transition into higher education can provide additional insights that are relevant to our interest in developing peer-mentoring-based student support programs. The following are five important transitions in higher education.

From High School to College

In 2012 the number of new freshmen entering college was 2,121,000, with 57.9% of them beginning at four-year schools and 42.1% at two-year schools (“College Continuation Rates,” 2013). New freshmen enter a college environment that can be exciting and intimidating, stimulating and overwhelming. Decision making becomes more complicated for students moving from the more structured high school context to college because of the exponential increase in possible alternatives and level of personal choice. The highly stimulating college environment can make it hard for new students to know what to pay attention to first, which choices affect important outcomes, and how differences in choices affect those outcomes.

From a Two-Year Community College to a Four-Year College

In 2011 just under 7.5 million students were enrolled in community colleges (NCES, 2012b). Many more students begin at community colleges with the intention of completing a four-year degree than actually transfer to four-year schools or complete four-year degrees. Different surveys report that between 50% and 80% of community college students intend to complete a four-year degree. Nationally, it’s difficult to show exactly what the transfer rate is from community college to a four-year institution because of a lack of comprehensive annual tracking of student movement (Barker, 2013). However, several more locally focused studies can provide some insights into two-year to four-year transition trends. For example, in 2006 slightly less than 3,000 students out of a new student cohort of 4,400 at St. Louis Community College said they planned to transfer to a four-year college or university; by 2009 only 30% had actually transferred (Barker, 2013). In another study of a 2006 community college cohort, 13% of Portland Community College students graduated with an associate’s degree (which could enable them to transfer to a four-year college or university) while 26% transferred before completing their degrees).

Community college transfer students face several issues that students who begin at four-year schools do not face. One surprise for many community college students who seek to transfer is that destination four-year schools do not accept all their credits. Some community colleges have signed articulation agreements with four-year schools to address this issue, but there is no uniform policy among four-year schools. This means that credits from a specific community college that are accepted at one school might not be accepted by another (Barker, 2013). This problem can be particularly acute for first-generation or low-income students who may not understand how the community college to four-year college transfer process works.

Returning Students’ Transition from the Community to Higher Education

The number of individuals seeking retraining or credentials necessary for career changes has been steadily increasing since the 1990s. This trend has led to even greater numbers of returning students during the last recession and period of slow economic recovery. In addition there has been a surge in the number of veterans returning to college after completing their service (Cook & Kim, 2009; Fusch, 2011a). After the 10-year period from 2001 to 2011 when high levels of active duty personnel were maintained because of two major overseas conflicts, there was a major scaling down in the armed forces. Returning to college is an attractive alternative for veterans because of the Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits available to them along with the lack of available civilian jobs.

From Undergraduate to Graduate School

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, 441,000 students began graduate studies in 2011 (Allum, Bell, & Sowell, 2012). Institutions that participated in the annual survey reported receiving nearly 1.88 million applications across all fields of study leading to master’s or doctoral degrees and graduate certificates (Allum et al., 2012). The transition from undergraduate to graduate school is as great as moving from high school to college for many students because of unavoidable life challenges. This transition involves shifts in expectations for learning, new relationships with faculty members and other students, and changes in the version of the college student role necessary for graduate school success.

From One Educational System to Another

Educational systems are socially embedded institutions strongly influenced by the society as a whole, taking whatever form was best adapted to the realities of existence at the time and particular place in which they were established. This means that secondary and postsecondary education can and will differ between societies during the same historical period, such as present-day U.S., Japanese, and Afghan educational systems (Kerr, 1991, Chapter 1).

International students who transfer to U.S. colleges experience educational system differences on a much more practical level. International students must deal with all the issues new freshmen encounter, including a new hyperstimulating context, trying to connect to other students, difficulties in navigating the explicit and implicit guidelines of the university, and making sense of faculty expectations for students.

However, international students face a much more complicated path when moving from their home systems to U.S. colleges and universities. They must learn the U.S. educational system’s basic set of expectations for college students and then they must use this knowledge to appropriately interact with faculty, staff, and other students in their U.S. colleges.


Allum, J., Bell, N., & Sowell, R. (2012). Graduate enrollment and degrees: 2001 to 2011. Retrieved from

Barker, T. (2013, February 5). Meet the transfers: They are academic nomads. St. Louis Post Dispatch. Retrieved from

College continuation rates for recent high school graduates, 1960 to 2012. (2013). PostSecondary Opportunity, 251, 1-13. Retrieved from

Cook, B. J., & Kim, Y. (2009). From soldier to student: Easing the transition of service members on campus. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED505982)

Fusch, D. (2011a, Aprl 14). Helping veteran students succeed. Academic Impression: Higher Education Impact. Retrieved from

Kerr, C. (1991). The great transformation in higher education, 1960-1980. New York, NY: SUNY Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2012b). Total fall enrollment in degree granting institutions, by control and level of institution: 1970 through 2011. Retrieved from