Why You Need to Ignore Freshman Retention Rates

graduates throwing hats in air representing why graduation rates are more important than retention rates

Simple, they can’t tell you anything that you won’t learn by knowing the actual college graduation rate. But they can give you a false impression about happy and satisfied students because of the number of freshman returning to campus the following year. Basically, colleges like talking about retention rates when they would really rather not talk about graduation rates.

Let’s start with the information that you can learn from both retention rates and graduation rates. If you the numbers are low, it means a lot of students aren’t graduating. If a school has a 50% retention rate, I can assure you that its graduation rate will be even lower.

Now there are quite a few colleges that will argue that graduation rates don’t tell the whole story because they don’t include students who transferred and graduated from other schools. According to how the rates are calculated, these students will count as dropouts.

They also don’t take into account students who start off part-time and eventually graduate, whether or not they stay part-time or eventually become full-time students.

All true.

However, for the family that is about to send their 18 year-old off to college for the first time and expect her to graduate from her selected school in four years, graduation rates provide exactly the information they need to know.

What about the false impression bit?

Well, obviously colleges that have low retention rates aren’t going to be rushing to talk about it. However, there are plenty of colleges with high retention rates that want families to focus on how happy the freshman are since they returned for the following year.

But here’s the problem, having a high freshman retention rate doesn’t automatically mean the college will have an equally high graduation rate. Let’s look at some actual numbers.

There are 25 colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates that have a 90% retention rate. This includes 7 public schools and they are located in 12 states.

Given this information, and some schools make certain to provide it in college tours and information sessions, you might think they would have just as impressive graduation rates.

The reality is that the 4-year graduation rates range from a low of 15% to a high of 81%. Only 9 of the schools even had rates of 70% or better. The 15 colleges that had a total cost of attendance of $50,000 or more, had graduation rates from a low of 59% to a high of 81%.

Would you want to know that a third more students graduated from one school than another at these prices?

Now there are all kinds of reasons why schools may have lower graduation rates than others. Colleges with a high percentage of engineering students will tend to have a lower 4-year rate but catch up with their 5-year rate. And if the students actually have engineering degrees to show for it, it may well be worth a fifth year.

Then there’s the fact that students at many public institutions have problems getting all the required classes they need to graduate on-time. There just aren’t enough classes available. However, given the lower cost compared to most private schools, a fifth year of tuition is still cheaper than the alternative.

Yet no matter the origins of the differences in graduation rates, they are the numbers to pay attention to–not retention rates. The only time you should pay attention to retention rates is when colleges present them instead of graduation rates. It’s an obvious sign that you should go and look up the graduation rates.

Graduation Rates for Colleges with a 90% Retention Rate


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