CCE Theses and Dissertations

Student Retention and Completion Rates in a Postsecondary Online Distance Learning Environment

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences


Getrude W. Abramson

Committee Member

Marlyn Kemper Littman

Committee Member

George K. Fornshell


Responding to demands from legislatures, financial aid providers, accreditation organizations, and other entities, colleges and universities are strongly committed to retaining students and assuring their consistent progress toward degree attainment. Student retention is a strong indicator of institutional performance. It mirrors the extent to which students are successfully integrated into the institutional culture, reflects students' level of satisfaction with their continuing educational experience, and signals the likelihood of student graduation.

While the theoretical literature that attempts to describe the variables that effect improvements in online student retention is abundant, published empirical research designed to verify those theoretical constructs is scarce. Two distinct but complementary processes were implemented to gain a more complete understanding of online student retention. First, overall rates for online student retention, course completion, and student success were estimated using student counts obtained from a random sample of postsecondary online distance learning programs. These rate estimates, presented as weighted averages, provide a point of reference for comparing and improving student retention, course completion, and student success in other programs. Second, this dissertation presents a meta-analysis of published and unpublished empirical research, performed between 1994 and 2004, that quantified the relationship of a number of independent variables to online student retention. In addition, online survey responses of research, instructional, and administrative online distance learning practitioners are juxtaposed to these results for emphasis or contrast.

The results of this dissertation suggest that online distance learning programs should strongly integrate specific attributes and activities in their courses to improve student satisfaction, learning, and retention, which will require a strong faculty commitment to critically assess their teaching practices and to implement instructional improvements. The benefits should include an enhanced student commitment to persist.

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