Retention – college size; part-time students

The College Board was on to something naming their college search site “Big Future.”

Continuing our series on retention trends – the percentage of entering students who continue to enroll at the same college a year later – we look at the impact of college size on keeping students and then at how part-timers leave their programs at much higher rates than full-timers.

Bigger is better, again

A recurring recent higher ed trend is the shift in student preferences away from smaller institutions to larger ones. The 2010s saw increased enrollment at larger schools as they enjoyed stronger pricing power along with the inability of smaller schools to raise their prices at all. This shift carries over into stronger retention by large schools. While smaller schools already had poorer retention in 2009, the gap widened over the next decade.

Retention by largest:colleges ( >15,000 students (full- + part-time)) less smaller category (500-1,000)

Retention by largest:colleges ( >15,000 students (full- + part-time)) less smaller category (500-1,000)

Dividing colleges into 4 broad groupings by student body size and looking at their change in retention over the course of the decade shows smaller schools alone among the categories with an absolute decline, falling further behind their competition.

Change in retention, 2011-2019, by college size (measured by total undergrad enrollment, full + part-time). 2011 was selected as a start date because of 2010 cycle data quality questions.

By 2019, larger schools had a much stabler enrollment picture and a greater advantage than before.

If we look at 4-year colleges only, to remove the confounding impact of Associate programs with more part-time students, the results hold. In fact, they get stronger.

Change in retention, 4-year programs only

Change in retention, 4-year programs only

Smaller 4 years were able to improve retention, but not by as much as larger 4 years. The larger colleges both started with an advantage and improved more. By 2019, the largest 4 years retained 82% of their first years.

To sum up, large schools saw better enrollment, retention and pricing and the advantage grows the larger the school. Moreover, this advantage has also has increased over time. Big colleges, which already can charge more than their smaller competitors, enjoy lower customer acquisition costs because of their superior retention, which in turn allows them to deploy the funds towards instruction, campus and programs, which in turn makes them more desirable to students – the definition of a virtuous cycle. No slowing of these trends is apparent in the most recent data. The College Board was on to something when they named their college search site “Big Future.”

Part-time students have a tough time keeping with the program

Over half of students who begin a program part-time leave that college within a year. That effect is consistent across all college types.

2019 Retention %

2019 Retention %

One surprise is that there is no major difference between part-time students at a 4-year program and at a community college. Going full-time to a community college closes about half the retention gap with 4-year programs. Rates for public and private colleges are nearly identical.

2019 Retention %

2019 Retention %

While undergrads who begin a Bachelor’s program full-time and then eventually shift to part-time may be in a good position to graduate, students starting out a 4-year program part-time have slim chances of finishing at the program. While acknowledging that retention as measured here and completing a degree are distinct, this suggests two things:

  • Colleges must realistically estimate the real financial value of recruiting a part-time student, given more than half are likely to drop out within a year. The revenue benefit may be very small. Is it worth it?
    • Institutions have repeatedly launched online programs with substantial advertising budgets, with Clarion University in Pennsylvania being one recent example. Given that many enrollees will be part-time and given that online colleges have retention problems above and beyond in-person ones, we question the ROI of such program launches and marketing investment. No doubt these colleges will be tracking the investment returns with clear eyes.
  • Students who embark on the path of starting college part-time need to question whether this is something they truly want and are prepared to commit to. A wise piece of advice may be: “start college full-time or don’t bother.”

In our final installment on retention, we will next summarize high level observations and look at data quality issues.

Find this report and more at CTAS Higher Ed Business.


University of Central Florida, the 4th largest US college by student count

The University of Central Florida, the 4th largest US college by student count (FTE), is one school benefitting from current trends