If you visit regularly you might think that I’m infatuated with statistics, since I use so many in posts and profiles. Actually, I am far, far from the greatest of math-letes. But I try to find the numbers that should mean the most to any student and their family in a college search.

And one of the most important is freshman retention rates.

The freshman retention rate is simply the percentage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year.

But this tells you other things besides the percentage of freshmen who stay.

High freshmen retention rates will tell you:

  • How satisfied the freshmen were with their first-year experience. The higher the rate, the more likely that the students wanted to return.
  • That students could earn the credits, and usually the grades, that they needed to return. One caution : it is easier to remain at a college where you’re earning poor (a C- to B- average) grades than to transfer to another school that has serious competition for transfer spots.
  • That students had found an academic program they wanted to pursue, or at least put themselves into a position to transfer to another school to get into the program they wanted.
  • That the admissions office did an effective job in crafting a class; they found students who were likely to succeed while meeting, possibly surpassing, their enrollment targets.
  • That a school may have little room for transfer students. Some schools, Penn State’s main campus is a good example, have structured courses offerings to expect a large number of junior transfer students, though smaller schools do not.

What causes schools to have lower freshman retention rates?

  • The school admitted too many students who were not prepared for college-level work, or had no idea of the course of study they wanted to pursue in college.
  • Students lose financial aid after their freshman year and cannot afford to remain in school.
  • Students did not find the major that they truly wanted.
  • The school offers too many distractions on and near campus that have historically kept students from studying.
  • The school has a unique curriculum (like a block plan where students take one class at a time for three weeks,) that leads students to leave as well as succeed.
  • The school may have admitted too many students from distances far from campus, and those students become homesick.

Should freshman retention rates be a deciding factor?

Possiblyr.  I tend to be concerned when a college loses more than a fifth of a freshman class, especially when it’s a small or mid-sized regional private college. It’s very difficult to re-coop the loss of a fifth of a freshman class with new freshmen; more likely the school will have to attract more transfer students who will not need four years of financial aid.

So, one question you must ask any school with a low retention rate: what will it take to maintain financial aid? Some schools tie merit-based aid to the freshman year GPA, others consider it a reward for past performance in high school and will let you keep the money regardless of grades.

Then there’s another question. What if your heart is set on gaining admission to a degree program such as nursing, occupational therapy or pharmacy–and the only schools you get into have low freshman retention rates?

This should lead you to more questions to ask the faculty and administrators responsible for those programs, such as:

  • Is the program properly accredited?
  • What share of the students that come into the program as freshmen graduate without leaving the department?
  • How effective are career services and the faculty at supporting experiential learning and employment opportunities for the students in the major? . While career centers attempt to help any student in any major, they are more likely to see employers who recruit to the academic strengths of the school. Some will even find alumni for students to “shadow,” spending a day or two at their place of work, during the freshman year.
  • Ask where graduates are employed. For instance, if you live in New Jersey and plan to come home, are there alumni working in the Garden State? Or does the program exist primarily to license professionals in the state where it is offered? Or will you be in a position to pass the licensing exam in your home state?

The answers to those questions will tell you more than the numbers will. A school that has a difficult time leading undecided students towards an academic direction may be very effective with the students who enter knowing what they want to do. It’s up to each customer to find out what will work best for them.


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