What Is a Retention Rate for Colleges and Universities?

Why School Retention Rates Are Important to Consider

college student
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A school's retention rate is the percentage of new first-year students that enroll in the same school the following year. The retention rate refers specifically to freshmen students that continue at the same school for their sophomore year of college. When a student transfers to another school or drops out after their freshman year, it can negatively impact their initial university's retention rate.

Retention rates and graduation rates are two critical statistics parents and teens should evaluate when considering prospective colleges. Both are markers of how happy students are in their school, how well-supported they feel in their academic pursuits and private lives, and how likely it is that your tuition money is being well spent.

What Influences Retention Rate?

There are a number of factors that determine whether a student will stay in college and graduate within a reasonable amount of time. First generation college students tend to have a lower retention rate because they are experiencing a life event that no one in their family has accomplished before them. Without the support of those close to them, first generation college students are not as likely to stay the course through the challenges that come with being a college student.

Past research has indicated that students whose parents have no education beyond high school are significantly less likely to graduate than peers whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, 89 percent of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students. - ​First Generation Foundation

Another factor that contributes to retention rates is race. Students enrolled at more prestigious universities tend to stay in school at a higher rate than those at lesser schools, and Whites and Asians tend to be disproportionately represented at the top-tier universities. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are more likely to enroll at the lower-tier schools.

Although enrollment rates for minorities are on the rise, retention, and graduation rates are not keeping up with the enrollment rates.  

Students at these less prestigious institutions are much less likely to graduate. According to data from Complete College America, a coalition of 33 states and Washington, D.C., dedicated to improving graduation rates, full-time students at elite research universities were more than 50 percent more likely to graduate within six years as those at less selective institutions. - Fivethirtyeight.com

At schools such as Columbia University, University of Chicago, Yale University and others at the top end of the desirability rankings, retention rate hovers near 99%. Not only that, but students are more likely to graduate in four years than they are at large public schools where classes are more difficult to enroll in and the student population is much larger.

Which Student Is Likely to Stay in School?

The factors that influence the retention rate for most universities and colleges are closely associated with the vetting process that prospective students use to evaluate schools.

Some key points to look for that can positively influence retention rate include:

  • Living in the dorms during freshman year, allowing for a full integration into college life.
  • Attending a school where one is admitted early action or early decision, indicating a strong desire to attend that particular institution.
  • Paying attention to the cost of the school chosen and whether or not it is within budget.
  • Knowing whether a small or large school is a better choice.
  • Being comfortable with technology  — computers, smartphones — to use for research purposes when studying.
  • Visiting a college before deciding to enroll.
  • Getting involved in on-campus activities — clubs, Greek life, volunteer opportunities — that instill a sense of belonging.
  • Being genuinely ready to leave home and have the "college experience."
  • Self-motivation and a commitment to succeeding in college.
  • Listening to one's gut and knowing when and if a change in plan is needed regarding career goals and college major.
  • Understanding that college is not just about getting a job after graduation, but is also about the experience of learning and growing through the interactions with professors and other students who are from different places and different types of families and communities.

Once upon a time, some large public universities actually saw low retention as a good thing - a mark of how challenging their curriculum was academically. They greeted freshmen at orientation with such bone-chilling pronouncements as, "Look at the people sitting on either side of you. Only one of you will still be here on graduation day." That attitude no longer flies. Retention rate is an important factor for students to consider when choosing where to spend four years of their lives.

Edited by Sharon Greenthal