Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Teacher Education and Leadership

Committee Chair(s)

Sylvia Read


Sylvia Read


Scott Bates


Scott Hunsaker


Courtney Stewart


Susan Turner


The ubiquitous roadblocks to university graduation have been investigated, identified, and interrogated for 7 decades, yet the mystery of retaining students to graduation continues to elude even the most prestigious universities. This researcher’s approach to increasing graduation began with the concession that increasingly, students may leave school at some point due to one or more of the retention issues that we recognize all too well—finances, illness, family problems, pregnancies, and other educational obstacles. However, leaving school does not mean that there is no going back. Student’s dropout status changes when they re-enroll in school; they take on new identities as stop-out students who forge their own nontraditional path to graduation. This work explored the lived experiences of this often-overlooked subset of university students—students who begin courses in higher education but then forgo their studies for a time before returning. These students are known in the literature as stop-out students, a cohort seldom acknowledged, studied, or desegregated from dropout statistics. An online survey was used to determine the demographics of the stop-out participants, and face-to-face, semi-structured interviews were then conducted to allow students to relate their experiences, in and out of school, in their own voices. Of particular interest was the effect of students’ perceived connections to faculty, staff, and/or administration as an influence in their decisions to return to school.

The study was analyzed through the lens of care theory as a way to investigate how students’ persistence was affected by feelings of connection or caring. Only one of twelve interviewees had formed a relationship with a professor before he left school, and this relationship was maintained during his absence and renewed when he returned. The other interviewees acknowledged that they felt no specific connections to any person, office, or administration when they left.

The stop-out population is one that higher education needs to acknowledge and support with targeted services. In many cases, they are only a few semesters from graduation. Rather than blocking their way when they run for the hills, we should be lighting their path back to success.



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