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.