Digest No. 02 - March 2017

Life Happens Outside of College: Non-College Life-Events and Students’ Likelihood of Graduation

Cox, B.E., R.D. Reason, and S. Nix. 2016. “Life Happens Outside of College: Non-College Life-Events and Students’ Likelihood of Graduation.” Research in Higher Education, 57, 823–844.


Bradley E. Cox, Robert D. Reason, and Samantha Nix contend that life events that occur outside of college may have implications for educational outcomes such as graduation from college. For this reason, Cox et al. assert, “college and university administrators have an inherent interest in understanding the effects of students’ life events outside of college” (p. 824). To shed light on the possible effects of non-college life events on student educational outcomes, the authors test the hypothesis that specific stressful non-college life events that occur while students are attending college detrimentally affect the likelihood of their graduation. The authors test this hypothesis using data collected from students at 28 selective colleges and universities that participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen. Liberal arts colleges are included in the group of 28 colleges and universities. This six-year study sample includes 3,914 students.

Three forms of non-college life-events are used to test the hypothesis of this study. The forms that emerged from the literature include death, finance, and psychological. Death-related life-events include the loss of an immediate family member, the loss of a member of the extended family, or the loss of a friend during the previous 12 months. Finances focused on whether the student’s parents were affected during the previous 12 months by losing a job, going on public assistance or welfare, or becoming seriously ill or disabled. Psychological non-college life events that may have occurred during the past 12 months included whether the student’s parents separated or divorced, an immediate family member was a crime victim, or an immediate family member got into trouble with the law. The authors computed composite scales for each of these three forms of life-events.

The authors used logistic regression to test the guiding hypothesis that stressful non-college life events detrimentally affect the likelihood of a student’s graduation from college. The dependent variable was whether the student graduated from their initial institution of enrollment within four years of entry. Composite scales measuring the occurrence of the three forms of non-college life-events (death, finances, and psychological) served as the independent variables in this logistic regression. In addition, statistical controls were included for the students’ demographic characteristics, standardized test scores at college entry, college GPA, on-campus residency, and the amount of time students spend in class, working, socializing, and studying. These controls were used to account for influences on graduation other than non-college life-events that have been established in the higher education literature.


The findings of this study offer some support that stressful non-college life events that occur while students are attending college detrimentally affect the likelihood of their graduation. Only psychological non-college life events, however, reduced the student’s likelihood of graduation from their original college or university within four years. Both death and financial non-college life-events wield little or no influence on the likelihood of graduation within four years. The authors found the occurrence of each of the three types of psychological problems decreased the chance of graduation within four years by about 23 percent.

The authors also indicate that 52.9 percent of sophomores and juniors in selective colleges and universities had experienced a non-college life event during the past 12 months. Moreover, some students experienced two or more non-college life events. Of the three types of psychological life events, Cox et al. report that 8 percent of students had an immediate family member victimized during the past 12 months and that 6.9 percent had an immediate family member with legal problems. Another 3.8 percent had had their parents separate or divorce within the previous year.


The findings of this study should alert presidents, chief academic officers, and chief student affairs officers at CIC member colleges and universities to the significance of life events that occur external to the college environment. In the words of Cox et al. “students’ lives outside of college can have dramatic effects on academic outcomes” (p. 823). Students with non-college psychological life events are at risk of not graduating within four years after their initial enrollment. Early alert systems and intrusive advising are approaches that colleges and universities might deploy. Early alert systems involve asking faculty and staff members to identify students who demonstrate signs of personal or academic difficulty. Academic advisors who subscribe to intrusive advising may learn of such events through their regular conversations with students. The authors also suggest that residence hall staff and residential assistants may identify students living on campus who have experienced non-college psychological events.

Beyond their identification, CIC colleges and universities need mechanisms in place to help students cope with the consequences of their non-college life events. If college counseling services are unable to serve such students, then CIC member institutions should consider appointing an individual to coordinate the institutional response across different offices and services.


Bradley E. Cox is associate of education at Florida State University.

Robert D. Reason is professor and associate director of research and administration in the School of Education at the Iowa State University.

Samantha Nix is a doctoral student in higher education at Florida State University.

Megan Gillman is assistant director of the university honors program at Florida State University.


The following references are recommended for readers who want to learn more regarding similar aspects of student life.

Oimette, P., and J.P. Brown (eds). 2003. Trauma and Substance Abuse: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment of Comorbid Disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Reynolds, A.L. 2010. “Counseling and Helping Skills.” In Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession, edited by J.H. Schuh, S.R. Jones, and S.R. Harper. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.