Sarah Maddox


Yakaboski, Tamara

Committee Member

Birnbaum, Matthew

Committee Member

Cardona, Vilma

Committee Member

Smith, Mark


Leadership, Policy, and Development


University of Northern Colorado

Type of Resources


Place of Publication

Greeley (Colo.)


University of Northern Colorado

Date Created



243 pages

Digital Origin

Born digital


Most students begin doctoral programs fully intending on completing the terminal degree. However, nearly half of the students who begin a doctoral program do not complete their degree. Attrition, or a decline in the number of students enrolled from the beginning to the end of a doctoral program, occurs throughout the degree. Some attrition is to be expected, and can be healthy. However, students may also choose to depart for negative reasons. Doctoral attrition is a relatively recent consideration in the literature, and previous literature had not considered the unique nature of higher education and student affairs programs. This dissertation study uses attribution theory to consider the research question: To what do people who voluntarily depart from doctoral programs in higher education attribute their departure? Through interviews of fifteen participants who chose to leave their doctoral programs, I developed four themes that led to the decision to depart: inflexibility of the degree, incongruence between program and participant goals, lack of advising and mentoring, and personal factors. In addition, I briefly address the impact of departure on the participants. In the discussion and implications section, I consider the role of attribution theory in the participants’ recollection about their departure, including locus of control, stability, and controllability. Further, I provide considerations and best practices for prospective and current students, higher education and student affairs programs, and graduate schools, including practical application of reference material and possible staffing considerations. Finally, I provide future directions for research on the important topic of doctoral attrition. Key Words: Doctoral Attrition; Higher Education and Student Affairs; Attribution Theory

Degree type


Degree Name


Local Identifiers


Rights Statement

Copyright is held by the author.