Research in Higher Education

, Volume 56, Issue 3, pp 228–246 | Cite as

Sociodemographic Diversity and Distance Education: Who Drops Out from Academic Programs and Why?

  • Katharina Stoessel
  • Toni A. Ihme
  • Maria-Luisa Barbarino
  • Björn Fisseler
  • Stefan Stürmer


Current higher education is characterized by a proliferation of distance education programs and by an increasing inclusion of nontraditional students. In this study we investigated whether and to what extent nontraditional students are particularly at risk for attrition (vs. graduating) from distance education programs. We conducted a secondary analysis of cross-sectional institutional surveys deployed in the context of a public German distance teaching university among university graduates and dropouts (N = 4,599). Using binary-logistic multiple regression analyses, we predicted the likelihood of program attrition by students’ membership in sociodemographic groups, their goal orientations, and the corresponding interactions. Results revealed higher risks to drop out from university for female, migrant, and fully-employed students, but lower risks for older and parent students. A higher importance of career development or personal development goals related to a lower risk for attrition. Moreover, data also provide evidence that among some student groups the likelihood to graduate (or to drop out) significantly depends on students’ goal orientations. Results were robust across different academic faculties and were complemented by an analysis of dropout reasons. The practical implications of our findings are discussed with regard to designing equitable distance learning environments that value human diversity and quality of opportunity.


Diversity inclusion Higher education Attrition Sociodemographic groups Academic goals 



This research was made possible by a grant from the Ministry of Innovation, Science, Research and Technology of North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) to the FernUniversität in Hagen (Principal investigator: Stefan Stürmer). We are grateful to Heide Schmidtmann, Jana Darnstädt and Julia Kreimeyer from the Institutional Research and Quality Monitoring Office of the FernUniversität for their assistance in carrying out this research.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katharina Stoessel
    • 1
  • Toni A. Ihme
    • 1
  • Maria-Luisa Barbarino
    • 1
  • Björn Fisseler
    • 1
  • Stefan Stürmer
    • 1
  1. 1.Institut für PsychologieFernUniversität in HagenHagenGermany

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