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Examining college student retention: a closer look at low self-control

Amber L. Stephenson (David D. Reh School of Business, Clarkson University, Schenectady, New York, USA)
D. Alex Heckert (Department of Sociology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA)
David B. Yerger (Department of Economics, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA)

International Journal of Educational Management

ISSN: 0951-354X

Article publication date: 19 February 2020

Issue publication date: 16 April 2020




The purpose of this paper is to comprehensively explore the association between low self-control and college student retention.


Cross-sectional survey data were obtained from 369 undergraduate students in the USA and combined with follow-up data on retention. Factor analysis was used to develop and validate the abbreviated eight-item low self-control instrument. Propensity score matching, an analytic technique that permits the assertion of causality without the need for experimental design, was used to examine the relationship between low self-control and second-semester college retention. Use of propensity score matching permitted the pairing of survey respondents under the defined circumstance of low self-control with those respondents not having low self-control under multiple relevant covariates.


The results showed a relationship between low self-control and college retention. Specifically, in the matched sample, those students with low self-control were 8 percent less likely to be retained at the institution at the onset of the second year than their counterparts with higher self-control.

Practical implications

The results of the study prompt the important question of how colleges and universities can alter their structures and processes to better support students with low self-control. Key managerial and administrative implications from the findings of this study revolve around the recognition, motivation, and subsequent performance appraisals of those students with low self-control.


This study extends the quite limited research on how low self-control correlates with retention and subsequently offers insights on how to further support students with low self-control as a way to improve retention outcomes. Additionally, the validated eight-item survey provides a quick, low-cost assessment tool for interested researchers and managers.



The authors would like to thank Elizabeth Poje-Hawk for providing support and assistance with the data.


Stephenson, A.L., Heckert, D.A. and Yerger, D.B. (2020), "Examining college student retention: a closer look at low self-control", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 34 No. 5, pp. 953-964.



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