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
201

St Bonaventure University

11 to 164%86%66%13%99%7%
202

Saint Joseph's College-New York

11 to 168%86%68%16%82%N/A
203

Saint John Fisher College

12 to 172%86%62%12%96%N/A
204

Appalachian State University

16 to 171%86%66%23%45%4%
205

Cedarville University

13 to 172%86%74%26%88%2%
206

Ohio Northern University

11 to 169%86%69%19%75%3%
207

Franciscan University of Steubenville

14 to 179%86%79%26%89%N/A
208

University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus

18 to 166%86%78%35%62%N/A
209

Linfield College-McMinnville Campus

11 to 163%86%84%20%96%3%
210

Juniata College

13 to 173%86%77%14%92%2%
211

Salve Regina University

13 to 172%86%73%12%81%N/A
212

Citadel Military College of South Carolina

13 to 167%86%77%25%62%5%
213

Brigham Young University-Provo

20 to 180%86%48%38%71%1%
214

University of Vermont

15 to 177%86%71%9%77%N/A
215

Virginia Commonwealth University

17 to 162%86%79%27%55%N/A
216

Harding University

16 to 164%85%99%66%87%5%
217

Biola University

15 to 170%85%70%21%91%3%
218

University of La Verne

17 to 164%85%47%9%73%N/A
219

The Master's College and Seminary

10 to 169%85%95%41%82%N/A
220

University of Redlands

14 to 172%85%68%11%81%N/A
221

Savannah College of Art and Design

20 to 167%85%70%21%88%9%
222

University of Iowa

15 to 172%85%81%20%58%N/A
223

Luther College

12 to 177%85%67%16%97%3%
224

Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College

23 to 167%85%77%32%72%5%
225

Gordon College

13 to 169%85%93%24%98%2%
226

Simmons College

7 to 174%85%58%10%91%N/A
227

University of Detroit Mercy

10 to 163%85%73%12%90%6%
228

Rockhurst University

12 to 171%85%74%12%68%6%
229

University of New Hampshire-Main Campus

19 to 179%85%79%17%58%N/A
230

CUNY Queens College

14 to 158%85%40%8%53%5%
231

SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

16 to 175%85%52%20%76%N/A
232

University of North Carolina Wilmington

17 to 171%85%61%18%53%N/A
233

John Carroll University

13 to 173%85%82%19%97%4%
234

Mount Carmel College of Nursing

13 to 172%85%82%54%50%N/A
235

Oregon State University

18 to 164%85%78%26%54%N/A
236

Duquesne University

13 to 174%85%76%20%92%3%
237

Lebanon Valley College

11 to 174%85%72%14%94%3%
238

Misericordia University

12 to 172%85%71%22%83%N/A
239

Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science Inc

12 to 161%85%63%63%23%N/A
240

Robert Morris University

15 to 158%85%78%13%80%N/A
241

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville

17 to 170%85%76%28%75%7%
242

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

18 to 168%85%80%34%43%N/A
243

California Lutheran University

15 to 166%84%62%9%87%3%
244

California State University-Chico

25 to 164%84%63%12%63%7%
245

Laguna College of Art and Design

12 to 166%84%37%21%100%6%
246

Point Loma Nazarene University

15 to 175%84%71%21%82%N/A
247

DePaul University

16 to 173%84%72%13%80%6%
248

Lewis University

13 to 166%84%62%12%81%N/A
249

MCPHS University

16 to 172%84%87%16%87%N/A
250

Wentworth Institute of Technology

15 to 167%84%67%14%86%N/A
251

Grand Valley State University

17 to 167%84%81%24%65%4%
252

Bethel University

12 to 174%84%95%40%89%3%
253

The College of Saint Scholastica

15 to 170%84%61%12%82%N/A
254

Seton Hall University

13 to 163%84%76%10%86%N/A
255

Adelphi University

11 to 167%84%72%9%88%5%
256

Houghton College

12 to 173%84%95%35%97%4%
257

Manhattan College

13 to 172%84%67%11%87%4%
258

Nazareth College

9 to 173%84%76%14%97%4%
259

Drexel University

10 to 168%84%75%9%80%N/A
260

Gannon University

12 to 165%84%76%15%79%6%
261

Augustana University

10 to 175%84%65%25%97%3%
262

Lipscomb University

12 to 155%84%61%20%73%5%
263

Union University

10 to 164%84%69%19%74%N/A
264

The University of Texas at Dallas

23 to 166%84%61%24%65%7%
265

University of California-Merced

18 to 166%84%61%9%88%N/A
266

California State University-Fresno

25 to 158%83%52%18%75%7%
267

University of San Francisco

14 to 171%83%64%8%61%N/A
268

Sacred Heart University

15 to 164%83%59%14%85%N/A
269

Berry College

12 to 164%83%55%13%99%4%
270

Emmaus Bible College

9 to 175%83%35%14%95%N/A
271

Kansas State University

19 to 162%83%95%39%57%6%
272

University of Kentucky

17 to 163%83%89%28%78%6%
273

Assumption College

12 to 173%83%76%12%92%4%
274

Merrimack College

13 to 171%83%79%11%89%4%
275

Martin Luther College

12 to 173%83%78%66%94%N/A
276

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

21 to 167%83%76%48%52%N/A
277

Monmouth University

14 to 167%83%74%14%96%6%
278

Montclair State University

17 to 166%83%70%26%51%5%
279

Canisius College

11 to 170%83%87%14%92%6%
280

CUNY Hunter College

11 to 154%83%39%8%56%5%
281

SUNY College at Plattsburgh

16 to 165%83%50%12%72%N/A
282

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

19 to 153%83%63%21%52%N/A
283

Salem College

11 to 160%83%62%21%95%7%
284

Baldwin Wallace University

13 to 167%83%60%18%84%3%
285

The Christ College of Nursing and Health Sciences

10 to 169%83%54%29%68%N/A
286

Cleveland Institute of Art

9 to 168%83%65%23%97%5%
287

Xavier University

11 to 174%83%72%11%92%N/A
288

Geneva College

15 to 164%83%73%20%75%6%
289

Immaculata University

9 to 170%83%79%12%59%6%
290

Marywood University

12 to 170%83%71%16%97%6%
291

Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania

22 to 168%83%68%26%58%N/A
292

Belmont University

14 to 169%83%80%23%65%3%
293

John A Gupton College

15 to 150%83%77%59%63%13%
294

University of St Thomas

9 to 158%83%78%28%78%N/A
295

Texas Tech University

22 to 160%83%63%22%52%N/A
296

Pacific Lutheran University

11 to 168%83%76%18%96%3%
297

Mountain State College

17 to 192%83%N/AN/A6%18%
298

Grace College of Divinity

6 to 1N/A83%53%50%24%N/A
299

American Medical Academy

6 to 175%83%N/AN/A18%N/A
300

University of Arkansas

19 to 162%82%60%24%58%N/A

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