AIMS AND OBJECTIVES: The purpose of the review was to identify student characteristics and strategies in research studies investigating retention (why students stay) as opposed to attrition (why students leave) nursing and midwifery preregistration programmes. BACKGROUND: Retention in nursing and midwifery programmes is a serious international problem. Many governments are committed to diversifying both the student population and the health care workforce. This has led to higher education institutes in some countries offering places on nursing and midwifery programmes to students with non-traditional entry qualifications. There are suggestions that the policy of widening access has contributed to the challenges of retention in nursing and midwifery programmes. DESIGN: Integrative literature review. METHOD: Undertaken using electronic databases and specific search terms, 15 articles were identified and reviewed. The critical appraisal tools produced by CASP (2009) were used to evaluate the quality of the data. Findings from the identified research literature were analysed using qualitative content analysis. RESULTS: Two broad themes emerged from the analysis: Programme and Personal. Subthemes were identified in these that give clues as to why students stay: profession, support, student characteristics and family. CONCLUSIONS: Personal commitment and good support seem to be essential for students to remain on undergraduate programmes of nursing and midwifery. The term 'support' is rarely explicit and requires to be more clearly defined. Furthermore, studies reviewed fail to indicate clearly how to identify when students are most vulnerable and which interventions are most appropriate in different situations in supporting retaining students on programmes. RELEVANCE TO CLINICAL PRACTICE: Nursing and midwifery student retention is a political and professional problem. Collaboration between clinical placement providers, academic institutions, students and their families is required to address the issue. Illumination of factors that help students stay may help us devise interventions that prevent future students leaving.