One of the most important performance measures for a college is its freshman retention rate. The freshman retention rate is the percentage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year. The higher the freshman retention rate the more likely that:

  • These students will remain to declare a major. A rising sophomore should be in a position to be able to choose between two, possibly three, majors by the middle of their sophomore year.
  • These students will go on to graduate on time. The more committed they are to an academic program, the more likely they will finish.

Typically, the schools that have high (85 percent or better for a liberal arts college, 90 percent or better for a mid-sized or larger school) freshman retention rates have also attracted the more motivated high school graduates.

However, it is not uncommon for more than half of the freshmen who enter a liberal arts college to be undecided on a major, or for nearly half of the freshman at a much larger school to be undecided as well. Aside from students who begin college with academic weaknesses or financial issues, the students who enter undecided are actually the greatest risks for a college to take on. Of course, you will not hear that from college admissions officers, especially those who work at schools that are trying to fill their freshman class for the fall.

Why are these students a risk?

Because when they do not know what they want to do, they end up listening to people who are trying to guess. Or those people, usually academic advisors, are trying to make sure that their students are on track to complete the requirements for their degree, versus trying to find out which subjects are most likely to lead them to their possible major(s).

The best colleges minimize the risk to the undecided students, as well as themselves. They take academic advising as well as early engagement with career services quite seriously. They will even help students to transfer to another school, if that school offers a program that’s better for them. I have been to many schools that do an excellent job at advising, some with names that are less famous than others.

However, risk management can go overboard.

I recently read news coverage about the president of Mount Saint Mary’s University (MD). He tried to raise freshman retention by asking freshmen who were most likely to be at risk to leave before they could receive mid-semester grades. He attempted to find these students through a survey of the current freshman class. The survey was supposedly designed to identify the students who were least likely to succeed–after they had been admitted, deposited, attended freshman orientation and settled on campus. It is easy to believe that the president’s approach was unfair to the freshmen who had committed to the school. Some, myself included, would consider it to be unethical. The college was, in effect, about to back away from its commitment to educate all of its admitted students to the best of its abilities.

The Mount is not an exceptionally selective school. Two thirds of the students who applied to join the freshmen class that entered in 2014 were offered admission, according to data that I found on College Navigator, the U.S. Department of Education’s fine search site. The yield rate, the percentage of students who decided to come, was a measly 12 percent. This suggests that The Mount was not the first choice school for most of the people who applied, and possibly that it was too easy to apply for admission. For the class that had entered the year before, more than a fifth (79 percent) had left. Worse, a third of the students who had entered in 2008 as freshmen had transferred out.

I’ve come to learn that a college must retain at least 80 percent of a freshman class in order to graduate at least half of the class on time. The Mount graduated 62 percent of the freshmen who arrived in 2008 within four years. The rest, another four percent, were done within five or six. So The Mount did okay by this measure, even if it lost a third of a class along the way.

However, The Mount is also a private college, and more expensive than a public one. When you pay more, you should expect to get more. With these retention and graduation rates it was clear to me that the students were not receiving enough of something, whether it be academic direction or attention outside of the classroom. The time that the university’s president spent to “survey out” 25 students in his freshman class could have been better spent to find out why so many were leaving on their own accord. He might have found that more support was needed, or a change in marketing practices was in order.

Why do students transfer out of a college?

There are so many reasons: bad fit, financial issues, academics (interests and progress), homesickness, medical issues come to mind.

When a college loses more than fifth of a class, especially a private school that is dependent on tuition revenues, the problems go beyond losing the students. Those who leave tell others why they left; the most descriptive of comments become viral. The culture changes on campus, and not in a good way. Applications go down. The admissions office is forced to go deeper into their applicant pool to replace these students. The freshman retention rate continues on its downward spiral.

Fortunately, The Mount did not dismiss any freshmen who were thought to be unlikely to succeed before they had even received their first grades. But the president did some serious damage within his university community as did the chair of the university’s Board of Trustees who went out of his way to call student coverage of this issue inaccurate, although the student reporters had apparently acted as professionally as student journalists could.

Colleges, especially small universities such as The Mount, are in the business of helping students to succeed at earning a degree. In order to do that, the admissions office, not the president, needs to find out who is most likely to succeed–and get those students to apply and commit. The best place to start is to develop a good profile of the students that you already have in the junior and senior classes, if you have not done so already.

The coverage given to this story shows, if unintentionally, that The Mount’s president tried to make his school “better” by telling students who had already deposited and enrolled to give up; this place will be too tough for you.

If this president is to remain in his position, he has to learn that part of his job is to acquire and maintain the resources that will help his students to succeed.

It has become quite difficult for school counselors, high school teachers and independent counselors to recommend The Mount to their students as a place where they can.


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