A college’s retention rate reflects the student body’s overall interest in the college. This figure can explain many factors that compose the attractiveness of a college, including the quality of its teaching staff, the relevance of its curriculum, and the perceived value of what is being taught. The retention rate figures are provided by the NCES database. The NCES defines retention rate as the percentage of first-time bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree-seeking undergraduates from fall 2011 who enrolled again in fall 2012.

The NCES database did not have retention rate figures for all of the colleges on our list. We did not, however, want to penalize those colleges without data. To that end, we simply excluded those schools from the rankings in this category. Read more about our ranking methodology here.

What is a College Retention Rate?

Per the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website, retention rate is the percentage of a school’s first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. Put more simply, though, retention rates are a good indication of how many undergraduate students start at a college and continue their education at that college.

When evaluating a school based on retention rate, it is important to note the effect transfer students have on the rate. A student who starts at a College A, then transfers to College B for sophomore year will cause a negative retention rate for the College A. Further, that student will not even be a factor into the retention rate of College B. Additionally, the numbers can be even further skewed when considering community college versus destination schools. Where many community colleges have positioned themselves as a jumping-off point for college students, so-called destination schools (think Ivy League schools) have a high retention rate because of how hard students work to get in. Both are acceptable forms of education, but where a destination school will have close to a 99% retention rate, a community college will have a much, much lower number, due mainly to their positioning as a place from which you may transfer credits to the school that you want to ultimately graduate from.

Because of all these mitigating factors, a college retention rate is just one of the many factors to weigh when choosing a university to attend.

Why do Students Drop Out of College?

Though we seldom like to think about it, there are times when students drop out of college. It’s a lot more common than you might think. According to the 2015 U.S. Census, more than 25% of people in their 30s have attended college at some point, but do not have a degree. Per a 2012 article from Reuters, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Pathways to Prosperity” study shows that just 56% of college students complete a four-year degree within six years. Only 29% of associate degree seekers complete their two-year program within three years. The most frequent reasons for dropping out include not being prepared for the rigors of academic work, inability to reach an education-life balance, family issues, and financial circumstances.

The most controllable, most frequent source of stress for students is money. Lower income students and those working full time as they attend classes have a higher dropout rate. You can prepare for this by filling out a FAFSA and applying for student aid. If you plan to work while attending classes, make sure that your employer knows what your class schedule is like and that you will be unable to pick up extra hours during those times. Communication is key for mitigating both financial and family crises, so it’s a good idea to make sure all of the people in your life know what your priorities are.

Why Should You Care about College Retention Rates?

Frankly, though a college’s retention rate is just one key data point to consider, the rate itself offers a treasure trove of information for the discerning incoming freshman. Retention rates offer insight into:

  • How many incoming freshmen become sophomores: According to “The Murky Middle”. If a student will struggle, it is likely to be in their first year of college, before their life has fully integrated the demands of a college education.
  • How many students maintain interest in an educational institution after enrolling: No one leaves Harvard without a fight, but the same student may not give a second thought to leaving a local community college. As mentioned in an article on Higher Ed Live, a high retention rate can be a sign that a university’s administrative team gives careful consideration to meeting or exceeding student needs, including class size, class availability, and cost-benefit. This is also an indication of how strong a university’s brand is. The stronger the brand, the more pull it will give your resume.
  • How many scholars end up losing time and money due to transferring credits: While on the surface, transferring credits to the school of your choice may seem like a sure-fire bet, sometimes credits do not transfer. U.S. News & World Report offers some great advice on how to transfer credits, but remember: Great advice is not the same thing as a guarantee.

How are Colleges Improving Their Retention Rates?

Colleges are under increasing pressure to improve their student retention rates, and raising this rate is a huge undertaking. To be frank, it is in a college’s best interest to have a high retention rate. After all, those who stay are more likely to graduate.

In “Retention And Student Success: Implementing Strategies That Make A Difference,” some more common efforts by colleges include implementing writing centers, academic resource centers, and outreach and engagement programs. Offerings such as these help students to feel like they are a part of the university community and that they can ask for and receive help easily. Further, the article recommends that universities that are concerned about retention focus on how to roll out the behaviors of successful students to the entire student body. Whether it’s something as simple as making degree plans and requirements more clear or something more complex, like interacting more often and more meaningfully with students, colleges know that it is up to them to provide the information and engagement necessary to garner and keep student interest.

The same article offers many examples of schools making efforts toward increasing their retention rates:

  • Mercy College in New York City created the Personalized Achievement Contract program (PACT) to help students learn to navigate the college environment and its complexities. Established in 2009, PACT is credited with raising Mercy’s retention rate by 15%.
  • The University of South Carolina put more emphasis on its Student Success Center and it’s Academic Coaching and Engagement program (ACE). The university encouraged advisors from all disciplines–resident, academic, Greek life, and more–to refer students who may be at risk of dropping out early. Such efforts lowered the university’s attrition rate by 3% within one academic year.

Colleges everywhere recognize that GPA is an important indicator of whether a student is likely to continue with their education. “The Murky Middle” discusses in depth how the 2.2-3.0 GPA accounts for 45% of those who drop out in their first year. These students are doing well enough–no academic probation, but no dean’s list either. Because they are not garnering any attention, though, when they begin to struggle, they are unlikely to be aware of resources that can help them stay in school. While there are still studies being completed on this topic, it reinforces the notion that communicating early and often with advisors and faculty is key to retaining students.

RankSchoolStudent to
Faculty Ratio
Graduation
Rate
Retention
Rate
Acceptance
Rate
Enrollment
Rate
Institutional
Aid Rate
Default
Rate
1

Shasta Bible College and Graduate School

5 to 158%100%73%55%85%N/A
2

Nazarene Bible College

9 to 140%100%N/AN/A49%13%
3

Holy Apostles College and Seminary

6 to 160%100%N/AN/A22%N/A
4

Luther Rice University & Seminary

23 to 1100%100%100%100%65%N/A
5

Maine College of Health Professions

5 to 1100%100%25%25%59%N/A
6

Emerson College

13 to 180%100%49%11%58%N/A
7

Cox College

9 to 199%100%59%22%60%N/A
8

Saint Elizabeth College of Nursing

8 to 150%100%50%39%67%4%
9

Provo College

12 to 171%100%N/AN/A74%18%
10

Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences

11 to 168%100%53%37%42%N/A
11

Unitek College

16 to 1N/A100%N/AN/A20%N/A
12

Touro University Worldwide

13 to 1N/A100%N/AN/A76%4%
13

American Sentinel University

20 to 1N/A100%N/AN/A22%N/A
14

Midwives College of Utah

5 to 1N/A100%100%100%30%N/A
15

Yale University

6 to 197%99%7%5%52%N/A
16

University of Notre Dame

10 to 197%98%20%11%63%N/A
17

Harvard University

7 to 198%98%6%4%44%N/A
18

Carnegie Mellon University

10 to 188%98%24%8%54%N/A
19

University of Pennsylvania

6 to 195%98%10%7%54%N/A
20

Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus

19 to 185%97%32%11%63%N/A
21

Johns Hopkins University

10 to 194%97%14%5%51%N/A
22

Northeastern University

14 to 184%97%28%6%65%N/A
23

Tufts University

9 to 193%97%16%7%43%N/A
24

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

12 to 190%97%26%12%51%N/A
25

Cornell University

9 to 193%97%15%8%55%N/A
26

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

14 to 190%97%31%13%53%N/A
27

University of Virginia-Main Campus

15 to 193%97%30%12%40%N/A
28

Apex School of Theology

17 to 195%97%N/AN/A99%11%
29

University of California-Berkeley

17 to 192%96%17%7%61%N/A
30

University of California-Los Angeles

16 to 191%96%17%6%61%N/A
31

Georgetown University

11 to 194%96%17%8%42%N/A
32

University of Florida

20 to 187%96%48%24%88%N/A
33

Babson College

14 to 189%96%26%7%48%N/A
34

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

13 to 185%96%49%11%92%N/A
35

Washington University in St Louis

8 to 193%96%17%6%49%N/A
36

University of Rochester

10 to 188%96%34%8%78%N/A
37

Villanova University

12 to 190%96%48%10%50%N/A
38

University of Wisconsin-Madison

18 to 185%96%58%22%42%N/A
39

University of Georgia

18 to 185%95%53%24%82%N/A
40

University of Maryland-College Park

17 to 186%95%45%14%52%N/A
41

Boston College

14 to 192%95%29%7%45%2%
42

Lehigh University

10 to 188%95%30%10%51%N/A
43

The University of Texas at Austin

18 to 180%95%39%18%45%N/A
44

College of William and Mary

12 to 190%95%34%10%44%N/A
45

Gonzaga University

12 to 183%95%73%20%96%N/A
46

Whitworth University

11 to 175%95%62%13%94%N/A
47

Colorado School of Mines

16 to 177%94%38%9%68%3%
48

George Washington University

13 to 183%94%46%13%64%N/A
49

Emory University

8 to 189%94%24%7%54%N/A
50

Stevens Institute of Technology

10 to 182%94%44%10%92%N/A
51

Skidmore College

8 to 186%94%36%8%48%N/A
52

Yeshiva University

7 to 188%94%80%50%82%N/A
53

Ohio State University-Main Campus

19 to 183%94%49%17%65%N/A
54

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

14 to 183%94%73%28%52%N/A
55

University of Washington-Seattle Campus

20 to 184%94%53%18%43%N/A
56

California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo

22 to 176%93%31%11%55%3%
57

University of California-Davis

18 to 185%93%38%8%72%N/A
58

University of California-Irvine

19 to 188%93%39%8%73%N/A
59

University of California-Santa Barbara

17 to 181%93%33%6%66%N/A
60

Florida State University

25 to 179%93%56%20%81%N/A
61

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

19 to 185%93%66%22%51%N/A
62

Illinois Wesleyan University

11 to 183%93%62%12%99%3%
63

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

13 to 177%93%58%13%95%N/A
64

Boston University

12 to 185%93%33%7%49%N/A
65

Massachusetts Maritime Academy

16 to 172%93%74%47%52%5%
66

Kettering University

14 to 154%93%70%18%93%N/A
67

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

17 to 177%93%45%13%50%N/A
68

Grace University

12 to 146%93%59%32%86%5%
69

Rutgers University-New Brunswick

15 to 180%93%58%19%51%N/A
70

New York University

10 to 184%93%32%10%57%N/A
71

North Carolina State University at Raleigh

15 to 175%93%50%20%54%N/A
72

Wake Forest University

10 to 188%93%29%10%50%N/A
73

Muhlenberg College

11 to 185%93%48%12%82%N/A
74

Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

16 to 186%93%51%14%68%N/A
75

Clemson University

18 to 181%93%51%15%71%N/A
76

University of Richmond

8 to 188%93%31%8%69%N/A
77

Chamberlain College of Nursing-Illinois

22 to 189%93%68%64%57%N/A
78

Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising-Los Angeles

20 to 170%92%49%33%39%10%
79

University of Connecticut

17 to 183%92%53%11%62%N/A
80

University of Delaware

16 to 179%92%67%18%62%N/A
81

University of Miami

12 to 182%92%38%6%70%N/A
82

Tulane University of Louisiana

9 to 183%92%30%7%70%N/A
83

Brandeis University

10 to 186%92%34%8%58%N/A
84

Massachusetts College of Art and Design

9 to 172%92%71%23%55%7%
85

Michigan State University

17 to 177%92%66%23%51%N/A
86

University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus

15 to 182%92%54%13%53%N/A
87

Purdue University-Main Campus

12 to 175%92%59%15%51%N/A
88

University of California-Riverside

19 to 173%91%56%11%84%N/A
89

Loyola Marymount University

11 to 179%91%51%10%78%N/A
90

Hope International University

14 to 142%91%34%12%82%N/A
91

University of Massachusetts-Amherst

18 to 178%91%58%12%69%N/A
92

CUNY Bernard M Baruch College

17 to 170%91%32%7%56%5%
93

Fordham University

14 to 181%91%48%5%80%5%
94

Marist College

16 to 178%91%45%13%75%N/A
95

SUNY at Binghamton

20 to 181%91%42%9%51%N/A
96

Syracuse University

16 to 181%91%48%10%70%N/A
97

University of Dayton

16 to 179%91%58%13%86%N/A
98

James Madison University

16 to 183%91%73%21%34%3%
99

Auburn University

19 to 173%90%78%25%53%6%
100

Chapman University

14 to 179%90%48%10%79%4%

Methodology

For each college, we gathered data for nine different metrics: the number of full-time faculty per part-time faculty member; institutional financial aid, acceptance, retention, graduation, job placement, and default rates; years accredited; and undergraduate tuition. Learn more