To graduate or drop out? Factors affecting college degree completion of Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial students

I conducted this study while associated with the Apollo Research Institute, renamed the Phoenix Research Institute. The Institute no longer exists so the publication is not available online. I provided a URL for an article in which the Director of the Institute, Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, shared findings from the study.


Executive Summary


  • Many researchers have studied the factors affecting the low retention rates of adult students, focusing on adult students as a homogenous group.
  • Few researchers have explored retention-related differences between subgroups of adult students or focused on the psychosocial issues they experience when they return to school.


  • The purpose of this quantitative correlational study was to gather demographic information about adult students at a variety of institutions across the United States, to understand adult students’ experience of psychosocial issues, and to determine the sources of support they find helpful in dealing with issues that arise as a result of returning to school.


  • The Adult Student College Retention Scale was developed to measure students’ experiences of 16 different psychosocial issues, their perceptions of the effectiveness and importance of 13 sources of personal, school-related, and work-related support, and their estimated likelihood of continuing to take classes.
  • Surveys from 4446 students over the age of 22 attending more than 1,300 different postsecondary institutions across the United States were used in the analysis..


  • Results provided support for the existence of significant differences among adult learners based on their generational cohort, past educational experience, likelihood of continuing to take classes, and perceptions of effectiveness and importance of sources of support.
  • These differences suggest that educational institutions, businesses, and families must offer multifaceted forms of support to ensure students are able to persist to degree completion.


            For Educational Institutions

  • Tailor college student orientation programs and other support services to the differing needs of Baby Boomers (to exert their leadership) and to Millennials (to determine their “fit” with the institution).
  • Institute an “early alert” system for adult students who experience an unexpected “shock” that requires immediate assistance to prevent them from dropping out.
  • Leverage the support relationships between faculty and adult students to help students connect with other support services on campus, and make sure those support services are easily accessible both physically and temporally.

For Businesses

  • Establish work climates in which supervisors and coworkers are enabled to encourage and recognize employees who are also students.
  • Make instrumental assistance available through tuition assistance and other financial perks, and through creative working arrangements.
  • Acknowledge the added value educated employees bring to the workplace in the presence of the students, their coworkers, and their loved ones when appropriate.


• As the largest-growing group of students in postsecondary institutions, adults must be recognized as having different needs depending on their age, past educational experience, and other variables, much as researchers and practitioners have already recognized differences in the needs of the much more homogenous group of 18- to 22-year-old traditional students. Ignoring these differences and continuing to consider all adult students as virtually the same will likely result in continuing low retention rates for this population. As the United States emerges from perilous economic times and strives to reach the President’s education goals, every student, regardless of age or life situation, must have the best chance possible for degree completion.

Publication Type: 
Web Article
Debbie Ritter-Williams
Ruby Rouse
Year of Publication: 
Journal, Book, Magazine or Other Publication Title: 
Apollo Research Institute
Date Published: 
Friday, October 7, 2011
Place Published: 
Apollo Research Institute website
Publication Language: 
Boyer's Domain: 

Additional content will be provided upon request.