The survey - compiled from interviews with 9,000 students and staff in 31 institutions - says a combination of factors lies behind the decision to quit college.
Students who applied late, travelled long distances to college, had difficulty in making friends and settling in, were dissatisfied with the quality of teaching and timetable, found the course uninteresting and did not get enough help in finding a job or university place were more likely to leave.
Men were more likely to drop out than women and students whose fees had been waived or reduced were less likely to last the course.
The report's authors, Paul Martinez and Felicity Munday, point out that the influence of each of these factors varies considerably between colleges.
"Students continually weigh the costs and benefits of completion and this process starts even before they enrol," they say. "If the scales tip too far towards the costs, they will withdraw."
But the report challenges some common assumptions about what causes students to call it a day.
Less than a third of students leave college early to go into full-time work, personal circumstances were behind only a small proportion of withdrawals (usually prompted by problems at home for younger students or financial pressures among older ones) and poor facilities had little bearing on rates of retention.
"If anything," says the report, "withdrawn students indicate that they are more satisfied than current students with such facilities and access to IT equipment."
The report outlines measures designed to combat the potentially costly effects of poor retention. Better guidance to ensure appropriate course placement would, the report suggests, do much to keep students on course and good social interaction can be the glue that keeps people at college. "The most positive aspect of college for most students is other students" the report says. Early intervention - like a project at Lambeth college which aims to identify vulnerable students and give them a greater sense of shared ownership of the course - can help to stem student drop out. And straight questioning of current students - as in the Braintree College research asking second-year students if and why they had ever thought of leaving -can help to identify problems.
Despite generally positive attitudes towards staff, better teaching and more "stimulating, interesting and enjoyable" classes would keep students coming back.
The report says that most colleges have ineffective methods of identifying the reasons for dropping out, which can start even before the course begins. "Student tracking and follow up procedures need to commence from first contact with a college rather than (as is usually the case) from enrolment," it says. "Colleges need to review their current arrangements with a view to standardising procedures around follow up and exit procedures," Ursula Howard, director of research and information at the Further Education Development Agency, which published the report, said: "It is clear from this research that the biggest issue for colleges is ensuring that students are on the right programme. Effective admissions systems and specialist staff can make a crucial difference. But support for students should not end at enrolment."
"9,000 Voices: Student persistence and drop out in further education", is published by the Further Education Development Agency.