The Coaching Educator

A Nuanced Look at Freshman Retention Rates

student in library

(Photo by Redd Angelo)

Paradoxically, the more demanding a college or university is, the higher its freshman retention rate tends to be.

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.)

Freshman retention rate is just what the term implies: the percentage of students who return to a particular college or university after completing freshman year. The national average is about 75 percent. Not surprisingly, the applicability of such statistics is a matter for disagreement. Broadly speaking, one camp maintains that a low freshman retention rate indicates that an institution is doing a bad job, while the other argues that a low retention rate means students are doing a bad job and the institution is weeding them out. The latter point of view has become increasingly uncommon in an extremely competitive marketplace, but there may be truth on both sides in some cases.

One way or another, the freshman retention rate is well worth examining carefully when you evaluate the schools you’re considering. The following factors can be critical in shaping retention rates:

Admissions practices and student readiness

Clear communication between colleges and applicants is essential for the placement of students where they have a reasonable chance to thrive. A college that admits students who are unprepared for college-level work or who are unclear about a major is more likely to have low retention rates. As we have discussed elsewhere (September 8, 2018, “More Than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why”), 60 percent of freshmen prove to be inadequately prepared for college.

In this context it is wise not to reflexively blame the colleges. In an age of grade inflation, widely varying standards, and endlessly proliferating curriculum models, determining who is college-ready and who isn’t can be a challenging enterprise.

Paradoxically, the more demanding a college or university is, the higher its freshman retention rate tends to be. Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford, for instance, are all in the high 90s. Though not all freshmen at elite colleges have been academic luminaries in high school, most have, and the winnowing is accomplished during the admissions process, not after.

While some analysts blame colleges for having “too many distractions on and near campus that have historically kept students from studying” or for admitting too many students who come from far away and become homesick, we suggest that the burden of a realistic choice rests primarily on the student in such cases.

Student finances and financial aid lapses

As with admissions, precise two-way communication is essential. Students and colleges should be clear about what, exactly, is covered by financial aid packages. Lack of such clarity could lead to an ugly surprise and a premature exit. Performance-based financial aid can also present problems if the student in question is not adequately prepared or otherwise doesn’t maintain the necessary standard.

There are also other factors to consider beyond those covered by financial aid. Where possible, colleges should try to give incoming students a realistic picture of the local economy, and students should conduct their own research. The cost of living varies widely between, say, City College of New York and Mississippi State (see “Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College,” June 7, 2018), so a full tuition scholarship at one institution might be less helpful than at the other. The not-so-obvious costs of college can be devastating to an unsuspecting freshman who fails to take local and regional differences into account.

The fiscal health of the institution

Students aren’t the only ones who have to worry about money. A college with a sinking freshman retention rate may well be a college that is discontinuing courses and entire majors, reshuffling departments, unable to purchase or maintain needed facilities and equipment, cutting staff, or some combination of the above. (Many are the horror stories about required 100-level cattle-call classes taught not by tenure-track faculty but by callow graduate students with a limited grasp of English.) The potential for dissatisfaction among students is obvious. A fiscally healthy college, on the other hand, presents a reassuring image of competence and stability, or at least it should.

Quality and character of student life

Schools that offer incoming freshmen the fullest opportunity for integration into the college community tend to score well on retention rates. The availability of on-campus housing can be crucial, and a sufficient variety of clubs and activities is highly conducive to freshman retention. Large campuses and enormous student populations do not necessarily result in de-personalization and unhappiness: The nation’s five largest universities—Central Florida, Texas A&M, Ohio State, Florida International, and the University of Florida—all have freshman retention rates of at least 88 percent. (The nation’s lowest rate, according to CBS, belongs to Western State College of Colorado, which sees only 61 percent of freshmen returning to rejoin a cozy student body of about 2,000. The causes of this unfortunate circumstance lie outside the scope of this article, but the college reportedly is in severe financial distress.)

Student demographics

James Goecker, vice president for enrollment management at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, cautions that freshman retention rates can be a complex matter and are dependent on multiple factors, among them the family backgrounds and economic status of students:

“Many schools have as their mission to reach out to non-traditional students or first-generation students. Given their life challenges, these students find it more difficult to pursue higher education in a traditional manner. Stopping and starting numerous times may lead to a degree but create a statistic that is not reflective of the institution’s success in fulfilling its mission.”

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly a third of all incoming freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, and according to First Generation Foundation, “More than a quarter [of first-generation students] leave after their first year—four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.” The Foundation also notes that first-generation students generally are “older when they begin their studies, are more likely to work for compensation, and are less likely to feel supported at home. Ironically, students who are first in their families to attend college are less likely to avail themselves of support services and resources than their counterparts. They are less likely to enter competitive institutions, and when they do are more likely to be academically under-prepared.”

If a college has an unusually high percentage of first-generation attendees among its freshman, a low retention rate might be evidence not that it is performing poorly but that it is assuming some risks in an effort to be helpful to that constituency.

While many educators, counselors, and consultants look upon a low retention rate as damning evidence that a college simply is no good at making the customers happy and therefore ought to be ashamed of itself, it is apparent that this is a simplistic view. As Goecker says in leading up to his remarks on first-generation students, “Perhaps the recruitment and admission process creates a poor match between student and college. It could mean an environment that is not supportive of student success. It could even mean that the institution is in financial stress and cutting instructors, classes, equipment, etc. Regardless, look deeper than a statistic.”

The Coaching Educator has access to a variety of databases that can help us analyze a particular institution for its academic standards, financial climate, and social atmosphere, and for the level of preparation considered normal among its students. With these and other tools, we have compiled a track record we’re proud of in the mission of helping students get into and succeed at the right college. To learn more about what we can do for you, book a free consultation with us today.

Paul Culp has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University. A former journalist, he has also taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level, and now writes for The Coaching Educator team.

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