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What Do Retention Rates Mean to College Applicants?

By Robin, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

When it comes to researching colleges, there is certainly not a lack of information available — so much so that it can be overwhelming to figure out which data points are most useful. Numerous ranked lists are published annually, there are websites that provide students’ reviews of colleges, and then there’s my personal favorite, the thick, desktop Bound-For-College Guidebook.

If anything, with so much information available, one might even experience analysis paralysis while sifting through all the data points and statistics. While conversations about college admissions often focus on a university’s acceptance rate, graduation rate, and average accepted GPA or standardized test scores, there is another data point worth considering: the retention rate.

What Is Retention Rate?

Simply put, an institution’s retention rate refers to the percentage of first-year students (both full-time and part-time) who choose to return to school for their second year. For example, you become part of the retention rate if you enrolled as a first-year student during fall semester, completed an academic year, then continued for a second year at the same school.

Prior to the 2000s, you didn’t necessarily hear much about schools’ retention rates, but as universities shifted to enrollment management models, retention rate data began to make its way into the college admissions conversation. Universities need to admit and enroll students as part of their revenue model, but they also need to make sure that there is a supportive infrastructure in place so that they can “retain” students, meaning students want to remain at the institution.

What Affects a School’s Retention Rate?

A school’s retention rate has a lot to do with how connected students feel to their institution and the people there. When a university has a high retention rate, that typically suggests that students feel supported at the school — both academically and socially — and it also indicates that the university is committed to providing students with resources and support to ensure that students want to “persist” at that school. A student’s level of engagement with their academic courses and co-curricular activities, as well as their own level of preparedness for college, can impact their desire to remain at the school where they enrolled from year one to year two.

Many universities have developed infrastructures designed to help students positively acclimate to college in their first year including resources such as well-developed first-year orientation, extensive advising programs, abundant student clubs/organizations, ample counseling services, and robust residential life opportunities. These are all elements meant to support a student’s transition to college life. Assuming that the student has a positive experience in their first year of college, then that should naturally lead to the student’s desire to return to the university the following year.

At the same time, however, the “fit” of the school can also impact a student’s likelihood to continue a second year at the same institution. In some cases, the university might have an incredible infrastructure in place to support student success, but someone might find that even with those resources in place, the school is not the right place for them.

How to Use Retention Rates When Building Your School List

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average national retention rate for all 4-year degree-granting institutions was 82% from 2019-2020. For highly selective institutions that accept 25% or fewer applicants, the retention rate jumps up to 93%. How a school compares to the national average can reaffirm your interest in a college or signal the need for more research to determine whether it is a good fit.

It’s important to remember that retention rates do not tell the full story as to what factors might influence a student’s decision to not return to school for their second year. In addition to a school not being the right fit for a student, some students might have family obligations that arise which require the student to stay closer to home or there could be financial difficulties. There are plenty of reasons a student may not stay for a second year that have nothing to do with the institution itself. Still, a school’s retention rate is generally a good indicator of how students feel about their first-year experience, and is one data point worth considering while researching colleges.

Research Retention Rates Closely

While researching colleges, it’s important to understand what metrics are being used to produce a specific statistic like retention rate. If you come across a university of interest that has a low retention rate, do some research to examine why that is before dismissing it completely. That school could still very well be a good academic and social fit for you based on your individual needs and goals. Remember, though it can help to build a more robust picture of a university you are interested in, retention rate is just one point of consideration to keep in mind throughout the college search process.

The experienced counselors at IvyWise are prepared to assist students with their college search by talking them through their goals and what they want out of their college experience. We can help you identify schools that align with your values as well as your academic and extracurricular interests, so you build a school list that is best-fit for you. Contact us today to schedule an initial consultation and see how our experts can ensure you apply to schools you will want to stick with.

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