Retention and Graduation Rates: What Do They Reveal?

Increasingly savvy parents and the occasional savvy student may have caught on to the wisdom of digging beneath the sea of happy faces, success stories and attractive photos featured in admissions brochures and college websites in search of valid measures that can meaningfully be used to compare one school to the next. Two sets of interesting statistics are freshman retention rates and four-or six-year graduation rates, which every school is mandated to report. Along with other outcome measures, these numbers are included in the methodology used by U.S. News and World Report to determine their evaluation of a school.

First of all, why do these numbers loom so large in a school’s ranking, and why are they reported as they are? It is easy to understand the importance of graduation rates. With less than half of all college-bound students in the U.S. ever graduating, this outcome should tell us something about the degree of support provided by a given college to its students to help them make progress and complete a course of study. However, given the wide gulf between types of colleges and the degree of selectivity they employ, it also tells us something about the challenges and risks faced by less-advantaged students at some schools. Therefore these numbers should be considered in light of the selectivity of the school in question. Personally, I have been disappointed with the shift away from reporting four-year rates to six-year rates, and can only assume that this represents acquiescence to a new, more dismal national norm.

What does it mean that the greatest focus in retention (re-enrolling from one year to the next) stresses freshman retention? This is because at most colleges the greatest loss of students occurs within the first year of enrollment. Many of the students who are lost in their first year of study never re-enroll, or repeat the pattern of enrolling and dropping out at more than one college. Therefore, freshman retention is critical, both for institutions, and for students themselves.

So, how do we meaningfully compare a college like the University of Denver, with an 87% freshman student retention, with Colorado State University, with its 83% rate, or the University of Colorado with its 84% freshman retention? And does it suggest that Metropolitan State College of Denver, often called Colorado’s College of Opportunity, is a colossal failure with its 67% retention rate and 21% graduation rate? (BTW, just for the sake of comparison, at most Ivy League colleges like Harvard, freshman retention sits right around 99%.) The numbers matter, but they must be interpreted in the context of the school’s mission and selectivity.  Metro State enrolls large numbers of first generation, low income, minority and adult students, and this exerts an effect.  It is also true that some Metro students are pursuing certificates or plan on transferring elsewhere, so this unfairly skews both sets of numbers. In my view the best use of retention and grad numbers is to help families ask hard questions of a school about how they are supporting their students.

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.

Some Nuances of Comparing Colleges

Last spring I was hired by a family with a singular purpose in mind: comparing the relative merits of the four colleges where their son had been accepted and offered varying amounts of scholarship money.  I was delighted with the assignment, for my specialization as a university administrator was student retention/success; hence the only thing I love more than working closely with students and families on the college planning process is digging deeply for institutional information and parsing the meaning of all manner of numbers and rankings – including some that aren’t widely known or reported. College-bound students and their parents are smart to examine and ask questions about standard institutional “outcome” statistics, such as retention and graduation rates. However, it is important to know that the numbers don’t always tell a simple and straightforward story.

As an exemplar of the most that possibly could be hoped for in this realm, Harvard University boasts a 97% retention rate for freshmen students, and a 98% six-year graduation rate. (When did reporting norms shift from four to six year grad rates, anyway?) The Ivy League and other colleges in the highly selective tier are SO selective in the admissions process that they can be ultra-choosy among the strong pool of students who apply, guaranteeing not just across-the-board academic strengths, but additional personal characteristics that bode well for success in their particular environment.

The only college in the state of Colorado that is regarded as most selective (although not exactly comparable to the NE Ivys) is Colorado College.  CC features a 94% freshman retention rate and an 85% six-year grad rate, and doesn’t cost all that much less than Harvard with a total estimated COA of about $46K.  Two of Colorado’s more selective institutions are the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Denver, once again mixing apples and oranges in terms of institutional types and sizes.  CU claims 84% freshman retention and 67% six-year graduation rates, while at DU the numbers are 87% and 74% respectively, just a shade better.  However, the comparative total costs of these two institutions are radically different: nearly $47K for DU and around $19K for CU Boulder at the in-state rate.  For those for whom cost is an issue, this is serious food for thought.

Now at Metropolitan State College of Denver  (soon to be renamed Denver State University, btw) the numbers look pretty darn miserable: 66% freshman retention and 21% six-year graduation. With numbers like these, college shoppers can’t be blamed for “dissing” the extreme bargain to be found in the yearly COA of just over $4000 at the still predominantly commuter school (most students arrange for and pay their own housing costs, so this is not included in the quoted amount).  To be sure, MSCD is ranked as a less selective college, and yet the numbers can be explained in part by the school’s special mission, which is as a college of opportunity serving large numbers of adults, low income students, and students of color.  The fact that 70% of Metro students have a job, and 30% of these a full-time job, explains more about both statistics, as does that fact that many students treat the college as a stepping stone en route to another college down the road. There is a lot of excellent instruction that goes on at Metro State (I know, as I’ve taught there since 1998), and if the school could eliminate those who don’t intend to stick around from the analysis, both retention and grad rates would look a whole lot better.

There is more to be shared about the college comparison game, but I’ve written the War and Peace of college planning blogs already, sorry! BTW, the student for whom I did the analysis ended up picking a fine school, but the least of the bargains in his mix of four schools (for reasons that I completely understood), and is now a proud University of Oregon Duck: quack!

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is a comprehensive educational consultant and college planning professional with 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration forming the foundation of her practice: www.pinnacle-educ.com