Kicking off our ongoing look at retention stats across the country
How do we know whether a college runs an effective undergraduate program? While graduation rates measure the ultimate outcome, the results take an exceedingly long time to be reported – the most recently available 6-year stats for Bachelor’s programs cover the first year class entering in 2014. Retention – the % of first year students returning for a second – is more up-to-date.
Retention certainly isn’t the be-all-and-end-all – other measures and information are important in “grading a program”. But retention is 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. In our recent series on the 2022 admissions cycle, we had pointed to how four of the hottest programs in the country were very much responsible for their success – they had been posting strong retention stats in preceding years – “punching above their weight”. And students, who don’t know what “retention” even means, are responding to the competence shown by these schools. That indicates that retention, while it isn’t everything, is a stat that is worth paying attention to.
But retention of different classes of institutions isn’t comparable. Lower income students are much more likely to drop out, as are part-time students. Very selective schools also enjoy high levels of retention; their programs are valuable and their students often come with strong academic credentials and from higher-income families, reducing the academic and financial risk factors that often lead to dropping out. We will try to decompose what retention is telling us about schools in a given category and region to allow for valid comparisons and to see if we can draw some lessons.
This post will look at colleges in the Pacific Northwest, the states of Washington and Oregon, first at public universities, then at private ones and finally taking a look at community colleges. While the readership will be most interested in 4-year programs, occasional looks at community colleges provides a good reality check to help us understand what that troubled sector is experiencing.
Public universities of Washington and Oregon
- Everett, a 4,000-student community college north of Seattle, looks to be running an effective program for a 2-year school, posting a 66% retention state. That puts it about even with nearby Evergreen State, a 4-year program with low levels of student satisfaction and essentially open-enrollment admissions, which makes it about as selective as Everett. Again, all retention stats are for full-time students only – the mix of full– and part-time isn’t relevant here. This exemplifies the challenges the 2-year sector faces in holding on to students. There’s been a lot of speculation in the last few years that the business model of community colleges is fundamentally broken. Stats like this do nothing to dispel those thoughts.
- Rogue Community College in southern Oregon near the California border lies at the tail end of these colleges with a 54% retention rate. Worth noting is that the spread between it and the most successful community college here, Everett, is only 12%, much narrower than at 4-year colleges. Socioeconomics are very important in these results. Over 60% of Rogue’s entering 2019 class received Pell grants, while under a third of Everett’s did. So this stat needs to be used with caution in comparing schools with such different student bases.
Read this post and others at our CTAS Higher Ed Business blog on Substack.