Digest No. 10 - March 2022

Why Mental Health Matters: Factors Impacting Retention Across the Student Lifecycle

Thomas, N., P. Barr, D. Hottell, A. Adkins, and D. Dick. 2021. “Longitudinal Influence of Behavioral Health, Emotional Health, and Student Involvement on Student Retention.” Journal of College Student Development 62 (1): 2–18.


The purpose of this study was to examine the attrition of over 10,000 students who participated in a longitudinal study from 2011 to 2014 at a large urban institution. Cohorts of students were followed to determine the social, behavioral, and interpersonal factors related to retention over time. Findings suggested that attrition was related to behavioral health factors, including “increased depressive symptoms, antisocial behaviors, exposure to stressful events, and substance use” (p. 2). The authors also explored a variety of protective factors related to student involvement and concluded that their occurrence during the students’ early years was critical for deterring drop-out during college.

Discussion of the Findings

Through a series of rigorous statistical models, the authors were able to substantiate a noncausal relationship between behavioral health and student attrition. The authors worked with survey data, registry data provided by the institution’s Division of Student Affairs, and institutional researchers to curate a data set robust enough to capture behavioral health information and important student demographic and trafficking information. The variables collected in this data set—including gender, race, parental education, age, cohort, and SAT scores—were used as controls in the models. The authors then performed a variety of inferential tests to determine how this information was related to students’ attrition at five time points: Dropping out after the first semester, second or third semester, fourth or fifth semester, sixth or seventh semester, and eighth semester.

Attrition across all semesters was related to greater occurrences of depressive systems, antisocial behaviors, and stressful events. Illicit-substance use was also related to an increased likelihood of attrition across time, but to a lesser extent than the behavioral health variables. In addition, this research empirically established the relationship between student involvement and attrition. The sooner a student becomes involved with a campus organization, the greater the likelihood the student will persist in future years. This effect is especially pronounced in earlier terms.

Importantly, some of the effects noted above were fully or partially mediated by grade point average. This suggests that increases or decreases in grade point average might explain or partially explain drop-out patterns at certain times during the college years; this is not at all surprising given the strongly established and documented relationship between academic performance and student persistence.

Implications for Action by Campus Leaders

By developing a community of data curators and interested parties the authors were able to utilize a dataset that was rich in quality and content, and which then permitted complex understandings of the data, leading to improved potential interventions. Other institutions, with sufficient leadership directive and collective will, could also conduct these types of community data-gathering practices. In the context of persistence, this team approach is the most direct route toward helping institutions make data-informed decisions regarding retention rates.

This research empirically supported the importance of getting students involved in campus organizations early on, and of keeping them involved through the first semester of their junior year. Getting students engaged in campus organizations anchors them in formal social experiences with their peers; both peers and friends are documented for their positive effects on student persistence (see Mayhew et al., 2016).

Campus leaders are encouraged to prioritize student behavioral health. Students come to college stressed, stay in college stressed, and probably leave college stressed, a situation which has only been worsened by the pandemic. What can educators do to minimize the impact of stress in college? Initiatives such as well-being programs can certainly help, especially in the first year. In addition to this support, perhaps educators might adopt a case management approach to each student, where supports are mapped onto any given student’s specific needs. The more overlapped support networks can be, with free-flowing information between parties, the more likely a student’s needs can be met to ensure successful student outcomes.


Nathaniel Thomas is a graduate student in the psychology department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Peter Barr is a research associate in the psychology department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Derek Hottell is the director of recreational sports at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Amy Adkins is an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Danielle Dick is a Commonwealth Professor of Psychology and of Human and Molecular Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Mayhew, M., A. Rockenbach, N. Bowman, T. Seifert, G. Wolniak, E. Pascarella, and P. Terenzini. 2016. How College Affects Students Volume 3: 21st Century Evidence That Higher Education Works. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh G., J. Kinzie, J. Schuh, and E. Whitt. 2005. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.