Involvement in student organizations, living on campus early in college reduce odds of dropping out

A new study by VCU researchers also finds that depressive symptoms, antisocial behaviors, exposure to stressful events and substance use increase the risk.

Four students walk side-by-side through campus.
VCU students walk through the Monroe Park Campus on the first day of classes in August 2018. A new study by researchers identifies factors that drive student drop-out rates. Among them: Involvement in student organizations, living on campus and greater social support are associated with a lower likelihood of dropping out of college. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Students dropping out of U.S. higher education institutions is a pervasive problem, with only 62% of students enrolled at public four-year universities graduating within six years.

A new study by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers analyzes a sample of nearly 10,000 college students to shed light on the risk factors associated with that attrition, the protective factors that lower the odds a student will drop out, and the time frame in which those factors are most influential.

Danielle Dick, Ph.D.
Danielle Dick, Ph.D.

“There are a wide variety of benefits associated with completing a higher education degree, influencing employment and health for years after graduation. Universities — including VCU — place a high priority on ensuring that students make it through to graduation,” said author Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., Commonwealth Professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine.

“This study has important implications for the need to support students’ behavioral and emotional health to retain them at the university, which takes on particular importance in light of the growing rates of mental health challenges resulting from the pandemic,” Dick said.

The researchers found that depressive symptoms, antisocial behaviors, exposure to stressful events and substance use are consistently related to an increased risk of dropping out of college.

Drug and alcohol use did not predict dropping out during the first year. But as students moved into their second year and beyond, the effect of drugs and alcohol became more pronounced. Students who used multiple illicit substances, frequently used cannabis, or had a severe alcohol use disorder were all at heightened risk of dropping out.

The study also found that involvement in student organizations, living on campus and greater social support were associated with a lower likelihood of dropping out. However, these associations were only significant during the first three semesters.

Nathaniel Thomas
Nathaniel Thomas

“Student retention is influenced by a wide variety of behavioral and emotional risk factors, as well as protective factors related to student engagement,” said author Nathaniel S. Thomas, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology. “Early in the college years, increased student involvement and participation improve retention. But in the later years, substance use problems and depression/anxiety are more powerful predictors of drop-out.”

The study, “Longitudinal Influence of Behavioral Health, Emotional Health, and Student Involvement on College Student Retention,” was published in the Journal of College Student Development.

Data for the analysis came from Spit for Science, an ongoing study at VCU in which all incoming, first-year students are invited to participate. As part of the project, participating students provide a genetic sample and complete questionnaires, allowing researchers to better understand genetic and environmental influences on well-being among college students.

The study involved an analysis of 9,904 students across four cohorts. It is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive study of the role of behavioral and emotional health factors, combined with student involvement data, in predicting the likelihood of dropping out of college among prospective cohorts of students followed longitudinally. Its findings are largely consistent with previous studies of behavioral and emotional health, student involvement and retention.

The project was a partnership of VCU’s Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Strategic Enrollment Management with the research team. It was originally funded by a Quest grant from VCU, awarded to promote creative collaborations that advance the university strategic plan and mission. 

“We matched students’ reports of substance use and mental health with university records on enrollment, and student affairs records on student involvement to study what factors predict retention over time,” Dick said. “By bringing together student information housed across different offices at VCU, we were able to study what factors are most important in predicting positive student outcomes across the college years. It’s also important to mention that we did this in a de-identified manner, meaning that student names were never connected to the data.”

The study’s findings could be valuable for universities across the country seeking to address student retention. For example, the findings could be used to guide prevention programming, with activities targeted toward encouraging extracurricular engagement early in college.

The findings also underscore how important it is for universities to attend to, and invest in, student mental health, Dick said.

“Our data compellingly show that  especially in the later years of college  substance use and mental health are actually more important predictors of student retention,” she said. “Investing in student mental health has been an afterthought for many universities, with the idea that their job is to focus on the academics, and to avoid being health care providers for the students. Our study demonstrates that behavioral and emotional health are tightly tied to academic success, so if universities really want to support student success, they also need to invest in substance use and mental health programming.”

In addition to Dick and Thomas, the research team also included Peter B. Barr, Ph.D., a research associate in the Department of Psychology; Derek L. Hottell, Ph.D., director of VCU Recreational Sports; and Amy E. Adkins, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.

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