Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Education



First Advisor

Minsuk Shim


Institutions of higher education are under a lot of pressure to increase student retention. The focus on student retention supports many goals relating to student success, institutional reputation, rankings, recruitment, performance-based funding, and continued viability. Students, on the other hand, are not so concerned with being retained, but rather whether their experience makes them want to persist toward graduating with a degree at that institution. Additionally, historically-underrepresented students, such as first-generation students and students with low socioeconomic status (SES), are over-represented in the number of students who do not persist, perpetuating achievement and SES gaps. Although institutions tend to be data-rich, they often fall short of making data-informed decisions. This study aims to bridge theory, research, policy, and practice to better understand and improve first-year student retention. The development of an action-focused exploratory model for student persistence, along with data analyses from various sources across campus were combined in order to gain richer insight into first-year student retention at a public research university. Lastly, an analysis of student engagement data offers a more thorough consideration of the differences in engagement for students on academic probation compared with their peers, who are more likely to persist.

An exploratory action-focused model for first-year retention for students who live on campus was developed as a means of tying retention theory with research. The model was then tested using institutional behavioral data. Despite the research showing that students who are first-generation or who come from a low socioeconomic status tend to have lower retention rates, these variables showed not to be significant predictors at the university included in this study. The results do suggest, however, that course flag, academic probation, weekends spent on campus, and advisor meeting, variables representing both student and academic affairs, contribute significantly to predicting retention. Describing first-generation status and lower SES per se as at risk may not be accurate as their differences lie in academic and social integration to college life, which institutions can support and improve. In this study, retention is interpreted as a student’s motivation to persist. The results are then interpreted through this lens to suggest ways that practice and policy can be adapted to coordinate campus resources.



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