What are freshman retention rates and why do they matter?

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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.

David Hamilton
Director of College Advising St. Mary's Ryken High School

THESE numbers tell a very good story

Retention rates are basically the percentage of freshmen students who return to the same institution for their sophomore year. I've seen the national average and it is around 77% which some may think as pretty solid. I look at it and see that 1 in 4 are not finding their current school to be their best fit and decide to move on. There are many reasons why students transfer or stop out, but the fact remains that the initial college search needs to be taken seriously. Retention rates correlate highly with the quality of the entering student body. Great academic numbers, great retention rates while lower grades and test scores may yield weaker than hoped for returns. In my eyes, what really matters is what a school does in terms of retention, persistence and graduation. Try to find an institution's anticipated AND actual graduation rates (4, 5 or 6-year). I consider a college to be value-added when the actual rates are 10% points higher than the anticipated rate. Safe to say that those schools are doing something great to help their kids succeed and graduate.

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?

Ellen erichards@ellened.com
Owner Ellen Richards Admissions Consulting

College bound students: read this before you decide where to attend college

Before you send off your May 1 postmarked letter to the college of your choice, know this: schools have vastly different rates of success with students. For example, among the Ivies, Harvard actually graduates the most students. What does this mean for students? The highest overall retention rates rank over 95%, while some dip as low as under 10%. Many factors contribute to an individual's decision to remain in college, including: economic, personal, academic, social and environmental. In fact, retention rates of groups the fall within the range of the overall retention rate shows the success rates of specifics groups of students - for example Native Americans. Therefore, not only should one examine the overall retention rates, but the groups within the schema. Emile Durkeheim - a French sociologist - found that alientation leads one to commit suicide. In other words, the more one feels integrated within a larger group - in this case a college campus - the more likely one is to remain there and achieve success. Therefore, the manner in which a student interacts with an institution and the degree to which she feels accepted causes her to develop a set of attitudes about herself and herself in relation to the college. The more validation a student feels, the more likely she will remain in college. Therefore, the more a college validates, supports and believes in student success, the more likely students will stay. And so I ask all college candidates and their families: isn't it important that after all your painstaking work to get to this place (not to mention the past and future financial investment) you look at what colleges actually believe in the students rather than attend one that offers a (presumably) mediocre education and lack of financial resources or neglects minority groups? It's time to look beyond the view books and the facade and examine the inner working of an institution. Where do you want to live and interact for the next four years?

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.