High Performance – California’s impressive private schools

Our retention series continues with a look at the Golden State’s private colleges

How do we know whether a college is running an effective undergraduate program?  Retention – the % of first-year students returning for a second – offers an up-to-date metric.  While it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all – other measures and information are important in “grading a program” – retention offers a bottom-line result measuring whether students can do the course work, can afford to pay for the program and, finally, like what they are getting from the college.  Because retention at different classes of institutions isn’t comparable, this series tries to decompose what retention is telling us about schools in a given category and region to allow for valid lessons.


Our recent post on retention in California’s UC and CSU systems observed how the state’s students appeared to be very sensitive to the measure, with applications flowing into schools whose strong retention results went underappreciated in the enrollment market.  In this installment, Golden State higher ed’s unusual competitiveness – and its unusual quality – again jumps out, this time from its private colleges.

  • California hosts an exceptional number of private colleges that are high performing on the retention/admissions axis we are focussing on.  Of California’s roughly 50 private colleges of size, a full 15 of them reported retention over 90%.  Stellar performance.
  • A few colleges fall outside of their expected retention range given their admissions rate.
    • California’s secularized population means that several fine denominational colleges are excellent “value” in terms of ease of admission.
    • We wouldn’t ever call it underappreciated but Harvey Mudd College reports retention results that are strong even given its rigorous selectivity.
    • The results for CalArts in LA are only disappointing when removed from the context of arts & design specialty schools.  We won’t cover this here – save it for a later date when we will compare retention and admissions for arts schools across the US – but generally speaking these colleges have high drop-out rates.
    • There is one big-time riser in this set of schools, Santa Clara, which you could say is poised to become the “Northeastern of the West Coast.”

Exceptional performance


Retention and admit rates averaged for 2016-19 throughout. Retention covers full-time students only. This applies to all statistics and results here.


Ignore the dotted regression line here because it’s the ultimate “grading on a curve”; every school featured outperforms versus the norm.  Besides several high-achieving private colleges, we included four UC campuses with strong results for comparison’s sake.  Retention stats in the mid-90% range and above generally show the ability to attract very capable, committed students and keep them with a strong program offering.  The fact that so many programs in California meet this elevated threshold points to the strength of its higher ed system.

  • While elite public universities like Berkeley and UCLA unsurprisingly get into this “club,” UC’s San Diego and Irvine campuses are just a notch back at 94%.
  • Endowments: Here’s a fun fact.  In 2019, Stanford’s endowment was larger than the combined endowments of the other 11 colleges included here combined.  In fact, it’s quite a bit larger than that combined total.  While Stanford certainly has benefitted from Silicon Valley largesse, giving seems to follow some sort of power law, where large endowments seem to attract ever more donations, like black holes.
  • This chart matches very small liberal arts colleges, mid-size programs like Stanford and Santa Clara, and the very large.  The fact that the four UC campuses and USC manage to post stats like this is remarkable.  These schools all told enroll over 100,000 undergrads with 19 out of 20 entering students coming back for a second year.  What can you say?  Wow.


Santa Clara

Given patterns in other glamorous metro areas, the Bay Area would seem to have room for another prestigious reasonably sizable private university besides Stanford.  We’ve pointed to Santa Clara as a rising “hot” school aspiring to this niche.  All the signs are there: very strong retention even compared to the excellent competition in California, an ambitious administration with a new President, and the perfect location if you want to enter Silicon Valley or live your post-grad life in northern California.

  • The school makes a big deal out of its US News rankings every time they are issued.  Its rankings are hovering close to Northeastern’s, hence the earlier quip.
  • The school has broken its recruiting record two years in a row and those matriculating show improving academic records.

The school’s admit rates (~50%) and yield (mid-teens) are flat so those metrics are not yet showing signs of a surge. But we believe this will come.


Santa Clara plays up its proximity to Silicon Valley. The university recently opened its new Sobrato Campus, a $300 million project focussing on STEM.

Small denominational colleges trail

One disconnect between admissions rate and program performance is seen among the small denominational schools.  Santa Clara, a Catholic university, is in fact trying to break away from the troubled zone these schools occupy. California is a relatively secularized state when looked at overall, and that average likely conceals a high level of secularization among the higher income families that would consider private college.

This social phenomenon appears to be affecting selected institutions.  The chart below shows that Dominican and St. Mary’s in the Bay Area, Biola, an evangelical school near Los Angeles, and Point Loma Nazarene, north of San Diego, all appear to be running very strong undergrad programs but have acceptance rates much higher than you’d expect.  Some denominational schools are doing well: besides Santa Clara, Loyola Marymount, a larger Jesuit school, reports strong results.  But the fact that the schools trailing in the admission/retention matrix are all denominational can’t be waved away.  They are failing to attract as much student interest as their program performance suggests they should.



Dominican University. Beautiful surroundings, sited in the Bay Area, excellent undergrad performance metrics. And declining selectivity and low yields.

Beyond the high performers

We have been comparing the high performers with each other so far here.  Quite a few California private colleges post less impressive results.  The chart below shows the entire sample of California private institutions, with ones we’ve highlighted labelled.



The next chart identifies some of the lower performing schools.  The news here isn’t that these colleges are lousy.  Any retention average above 75% is a respectable result for a Bachelor’s program.  Even California’s “below average” schools are mostly doing well when compared to US higher ed nationally.



A few concluding comments:

  • Complaining about only bad news getting reported?  This piece is an antidote.  California’s private schools – and many of their public universities – are posting exceptional retention results as a whole.  Again, great retention doesn’t prove that an undergraduate program is great, but it sure suggests it.
  • As we’d suggested in our July piece on the UC and CSU systems, California college applicants seem to be particularly well informed and sensitive to the performance of colleges.  This makes for a very “efficient” market – there aren’t a lot of opportunities to easily enroll somewhere with superb retention results.  The market for private colleges is not quite so efficient, allowing us to identify several denominational colleges that are relatively easy to get into, despite very strong metrics.
  • When contrasted with the performance of much smaller elite private colleges, the performance of the UC campuses — specifically UCLA, Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego — is plain impressive. We plan on eventually identifying the elite private universities in the US based on their retention/admissions rate relationships (we promise not to package this as a rankings system, though!) and we expect all four of these UC campuses to be right up there with some of the other “name” public universities.


Read this post and others at our CTAS Higher Ed Business blog on Substack.