Toward a Revision of Tinto's Theory
The Student Departure Problem
Almost one-half of students entering two-year colleges and more than one-fourth (28.5%) of students entering four-year collegiate institutions leave at the end of their first year (Tinto, 1993). Such departure rates are vexing to both scholars and practitioners. Scholars seek explanations, whereas college and university administrators desire to manage their student enrollments by reducing such rates of departure.
Although various theoretical perspectives--economic, organizational, psychological, societal--have been advanced to account for the phenomena of college student departure (Tinto, 1986; 1993), Tinto's interactionalist theory of college student departure enjoys near-paradigmatic status, as indicated by more than 400 citations and 170 dissertations pertaining to this theory (Braxton, Sullivan, & Johnson, 1997). Recently, Braxton, Sullivan, and Johnson (1997) empirically and conceptually assessed Tinto's theory. Their assessment focused on the degree of support for the 13 primary propositions postulated in Tinto's 1975 foundational theory. Empirical tests robustly support only 5 of the 13 primary propositions. However, 4 of these propositions are logically interrelated. Put in narrative form, these 4 propositions read: student entry characteristics affect the level of initial commitment to the institution. These student entry characteristics include family background characteristics (e.g., socioeconomic status, parental educational level), individual attributes (e.g., academic ability, race, and gender) and precollege schooling experiences (e.g., high-school academic achievement). The initial level of commitment to the institution influences the subsequent level of commitment to the institution. This subsequent level of institutional commitment is also positively affected by the extent of a student's integration into the social communities of the college. The greater the level of subsequent commitment to the institution, the greater the likelihood of student persistence in college.
However, these empirically backed propositions leave social integration unexplained. Theory elaboration affords one approach to the development of explanations for social integration and the revision of Tinto's theory. Theory elaboration entails the application of new concepts borrowed from other theoretical perspectives to explain the focal phenomena (Braxton, Sullivan, & Johnson, 1997). Institutional type (Chapman & Pascarella, 1983), organizational attributes (Berger & Braxton, 1998; Braxton & Brier, 1989), motivations for attending college (Stage, 1989), financial aid (Cabrera, Nora, & Castaneda, 1992), fulfillment of expectations for college (Braxton, Vesper, & Hossler, 1995), sense of community in residence halls (Berger, 1997), student involvement (Milem & Berger, 1997), life task predominance (Brower, 1992), and self-efficacy (Peterson, 1993) are among the concepts derived from other theoretical perspectives given empirical treatment to understand both social integration and student departure decisio ns.
Various constructs may also be derived from a consideration of the role of the college classroom in the college student departure process in general and the identification of forces that influence social integration in particular. Tinto (1997) contends that if social integration is to occur, it must occur in the classroom (p. 599), because the classroom functions as a gateway for student involvement in the academic and social communities of a college (Tinto, Goodsell, & Russo, 1993). Thus, the college classroom constitutes one possible source of influence on social integration, subsequent institutional commitment, and college departure.
Recently, scholars have begun to recognize the role of the classroom in the college student departure process. Specifically, the direct influence of classroom-based academic experiences of students on their withdrawal decisions (Nora, Cabrera, Hagedorn, & Pascarella, 1996), the relationship between social integration (sense of belonging) and the discussion of course content with other students outside of class (Hurtado & Carter (1997), and the role of cooperative learning in the college student departure process (Tinto, 1997) have received empirical treatment. …