Lead researcher Tim Pleskac of Michigan State University and colleagues developed a mathematical model that describes how students decide to quit college.
They used the model to analyze surveys from 1,158 freshmen at 10 U.S. colleges and universities that listed 21 critical events or "shocks" and asked students if any of these events had happened to them. Later the students were asked whether they planned to leave college.
The most critical event influencing dropping out was depression, followed by students recruited by an employer or another institution, losing financial aid, experiencing a large increase in tuition or living costs, an unexpected bad grade and roommate conflicts.
Students were less sensitive to a death in the family, significant injury, inability to enter an intended major, becoming addicted, coming into a large sum of money, losing a job needed to pay tuition and becoming engaged or married.
"Prior to this work, little was known about what factors in a student's everyday life prompt them to think about withdrawing from college," Pleskac says in a statement. "We now have a method to measure what events are 'shocking' students and prompting them to think about quitting."
The findings are scheduled to be published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.