In Search of Higher Persistence Rates in Distance Education Online Programs

Alfred P. Rovai


Tinto's [Rev. Educ. Res. 45 (1975) 89, Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press] student integration model and Bean and Metzner's [Rev. Educ. Res. 55 (1985) 485] student attrition model have been influential in explaining persistence and attrition in higher education programs. However, these models were developed with on-campus programs in mind and, although they are broadly relevant to distance education programs, their ability to explain the persistence of online students is limited. Distance education students have characteristics and needs that differ from traditional learners and the virtual learning environment differs in important ways from an on-campus environment. This article draws chiefly from Tinto's and Bean and Metzner's models and the results of research into the needs of online distance education students in order to synthesize a composite model to better explain persistence and attrition among the largely nontraditional students that enroll in online courses.


Persistence, Dropout, Retention, Attrition, Online distance education, Adult education


This paper summarizes and builds upon previous theories of persistence among distance education learners, especially those of Tinto (1975) and Bean & Metzner (1985). Rovai identifies four main constructs that influence the student’s decision to persist: student characteristics, student skills, external factors, and internal factors.

Student characteristics include factors such as age, ethnicity, gender, intellectual development, previous academic performance, and academic preparation.

Student skills include factors such as computer literacy, information literacy, time management, reading and writing, and computer-based interpersonal interaction. Later research (Park and Choi, 2009) questions the validity of these factors as meaningful indicators of persistence.

External factors include employment and family responsibilities, outside support and encouragement, opportunities to transfer, and life crises.

Internal factors include a wide variety of course design and program design variables as well as the smooth interaction between learning and teaching styles.

Of these four major constructs, student characteristics and student skills are elements that the student brings with them prior to admission, while external and internal factors are both things that happen to the student after admission. Later research responded to and built upon this theory. See Park and Choi (2009).

APA Citation

Rovai, A. P. (2003). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. The Internet and Higher Education, 6(1), 1-16.

About the Study

Links to Article
Mode Online
Publication Type Journal Article
In Publication The Internet and Higher Education
Type of Research Theoretical
Research Design Not applicable
Intervention/Areas of Study Content-student interactions, Student motivation, Student readiness, Student support
Level of Analysis Student-level, Program-level, Institutional-level
Specific Populations Examined Undergraduates, Underrepresented - general
Peer-Reviewed Yes
Specific Institutional Characteristics of Interest 4-year Institution, Associates-granting, Bachelors-granting
Specific Course or Program Characteristics Arts and humanities, Formal sciences, Natural sciences, Social sciences, STEM
Outcome Variables of Interest Course completion, Degree attainment, Learning effectiveness, Persistence, Retention, Satisfaction
Student Sample Size
Citing Articles,50&sciodt=0,50&hl=en