What are freshman retention rates and why do they matter?

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Our counselors answered:

What are freshman retention rates and why do they matter?

Scott White
Director of Guidance Montclair High School

What are freshman retention rates and why do they matter?

Retention and graduation rates are important, but should be taken in context. Public colleges always have lower rates due to their mission. They have more students who drop out for economic reasons. But among comparable schools, a higher retention and graduation rate is a good sign.

Betsy Morgan
Founder College Matters LLC

Come Back!

The retention rate is the number of students who return for their sophomore year. It can be a good indication of how happy students are, and how well the college supports students who are having trouble academically, and otherwise. Of course, grade inflation can falsely inflate this statistic. On the other hand, a college which enrolls many students who rely on financial aid and may need to take a break in order to earn additional funds may have a lower retention rate.

James Goecker
Vice President for Enrollment Management Rose Hulman Institute of Technology

It depends...

Freshman retention rates can provide a window into a number of aspects of a university or college. A low retention rate could indicate a number of issues. Perhaps the recruitment and admission process creates a poor match between student and college. It could mean an environment that is not supportive of student success. It could even mean that the institution is in financial stress and cutting instructors, classes, equipment, etc. Regardless, look deeper than a statistic. Many schools have as their mission to reach out to non-traditional students or first generation students. Given their life challenges, these students find it more difficult to pursue higher education in a traditional manner. Stopping and starting numerous times may lead to a degree, but create a statistic that is not reflective of the institution's success in fulfilling its mission.

Helen H. Choi
Owner Admissions Mavens

Coming Back for More

The freshman retention rate refers to the number of freshmen in a college or university who return for their sophomore year. This is an important number because it tells prospective students how many freshmen liked their experience enough to return to that same school as sophomores. Colleges with low freshman retention rates may be experiencing high rates of drop outs and transfer students, so it is very important to make sure you find out the freshmen retention rates of the colleges that interest you! An easy way to find out the freshmen retention rates (and 4, 5 and 6 year graduation rates) of any college, just go to www.collegeresults.org. They have that information for almost every school in the U.S.

Annie Reznik
Counselor/CEO College Guidance Coach

Retention Rates Can Demonstrate Student Satisfaction

Last Saturday, a senior told me that he plans to ask about retention rate during his college interview. His reasoning was simple, “If people like it, they’ll go back the next year.” A college’s retention rate has long been used to quantify student satisfaction. But, what is a good retention rate? The national average freshman retention rate is 75%, about a “C” on a high school grading scale. Using the same scale, a freshman retention rate of 90% is in the “A” range. If retention rate is an important factor in your search, you have a lot of great options. Nearly 150 esteemed institutions boast an average three year retention rate over 90%. Visit collegeguidancecoach.com and check out a couple of my “Top 15” retention rate lists created using the publicly available data at IPEDS. If you’d like to view a complete copy of my Retention Rate Honor Roll (sortable spreadsheet of all colleges and universities with retention rate averages above 90%) email collegeguidancecoach@gmail.com.

Karen Ekman-Baur
Director of College Counseling Leysin American School

Freshman Retention Rates

The Freshman Retention Rate is the percentage of students that return to the college/university for the Sophomore (second) year. I see a high retention rate as a sign that something is being done right - that students are satisfied, both academically and socially, and want to continue their studies in that environment. What could be more important?

Erin Avery
Certified Educational Planner Avery Educational Resources, LLC


If a college is not retaining its students, this can reflect the failure of the student OR the failure of the institution. Much attrition in the first year can communicate a culture that shakes down or "hazes" its students. The "look to your left and look to your right...next year, two of you won't be here" is not a culture to be glorified, as evidenced by the recent suicides at a Boston area university this fall. 

Nancy Milne
Owner Milne Collegiate Consulting

Freshman Retention Rates

Retention rates refer to the number of students who return for a second year of school. If the rate is high, that is an indicator of satisfaction. If the rate is low, it represents the number of students who are not returning is large. Students may have chosen the school for it's low tuition rate, to save $$ for future semesters elsewhere. Others may have realized they don't connect with the other students. Some folks will discover that everyone leaves on the weekend and they don't/can't. Or maybe you've changed your major and this school no longer has the courses you need to pursue your degree. There can be any number of reasons for the freshman retention rate and it is definitely a number worth factoring in to your application equation.

Lisa Hatch
Independent College Counselor College Primers

Why A School's Retention Rate is Worth Looking Into

As you continue to research and evaluate potential schools, one thing you may want to consider in addition to factors like cost and academic reputation is a school’s freshman retention rate. In short, the freshman retention rate is the percentage of first-time undergrads that return for their sophomore year. This percentage is often associated with the overall level of student satisfaction, although there are numerous additional factors at work below the surface. Studies indicate that if a college is going to lose students, this most likely occurs between freshman and sophomore year. Studies also suggest that, in general, the more selective an institution, the higher the freshman retention rate. Additional factors that influence retention rates include the affordability of the school, how well a student’s high school prepared them for the rigors of college, and how much the school lived up to the promises made in glossy brochures and through campus tours. Often, families underestimate the true costs of attending certain schools, and the bills for freshman year expenses offer a serious wake-up call. Another common scenario is that a student doesn’t realize how little their high school prepared them for college-level coursework until they find themselves struggling and pulling less-than-stellar first-year marks. Additionally, most schools have marketing departments whose sole purpose is to “glamorize” their establishments and paint them in the most favorable light possible. At times, students attend based on what they’ve seen and read, and then dip out when they determine that reality doesn’t always live up to expectation. Low freshman retention rates can also indicate a commuter school, or a school transitioning from commuter to residential. Of course, there are numerous other factors that affect the freshman retention rate, such as illness, injury, family crises, and so on, but the majority of students who don’t return make their decision based on financial constraints, a lack of preparedness, or the failure of an institution to live up to their expectations.

王文君 June Scortino
President IVY Counselors Network

it is one of the key facts for parents to consider

community colleges normally showed the lowest rates of rentention and highly selective colleges normally produced the highest retention rates. when students decided not to return for the second year, it will directly linked to graduation rate which is also the key fact for consider as part of college selection process.