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Retention: the Pacific Northwest

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

Overall retention stats combine the results for both full- and part-time students, who continue their education at very different rates.  To eliminate this factor, we are presenting retention stats for full-time students only throughout.  The rates used throughout are averages for the 2016 through 2019, to avoid the impact of COVID on both admissions and retention.  Because admissions rates are so strongly correlated with retention, we also try to disentangle the two.

The chart for all public 4-year universities in Washington and Oregon.

 

Applies to all charts: Retention and Admissions rates are averages for 2016-19. Retention measured for full-time students only.

 

  • The University of Washington’s Seattle campus is the only public school that was admitting under 75% of applicants pre-COVID.  While only moderately selective – half of applicants get in – it is clearly the best public school in these two states, with retention rates in line with very successful flagship programs in other states.  (UW will be compared to some flagships in other western states in a follow-up.)
  • Four programs appear particularly effective when their retention is compared to their admit rate: Oregon, Oregon State, the UW campus in Bothell, and Western Washington in Bellingham, near Seattle.
  • Two schools present very disappointing metrics. The first is Southern Oregon in Ashland, which loses 15% more of its first-year class while actually being more selective than either Oregon or Oregon State. Finally, Evergreen State is showing disastrous metrics which casts in doubt its ability to survive as an independent institution.  Evergreen State of course was in the news for remarkable levels of conflict and academic dysfunction in the period being measured, which is not helping it thrive.

 

University of Washington campus

The University of Washington’s main Seattle campus in full spring splendor

The private colleges

Private colleges in these states generally show higher retention stats then the public schools, even if their admit rates are similar, again pointing to the socioeconomic aspect of retention.

 

  • The big disappointment here is Reed College, easily the most selective college in the two states and the only one posting an admit rate significantly below 50%.  To put this in context, the University of Oregon in Eugene admits over 80% of applicants and has a retention rate for full-time students that is essentially identical to Reed’s.  This should put an asterisk next to every student’s look at Reed, an asterisk meaning “investigate further.”
  • Gonzaga, the University of Portland and Whitman College in Walla Walla all post strong retention metrics that suggest they are running very effective programs.
  • Concordia in Portland is the laggard.  Trick question!  Concordia closed in 2020after continuing to recruit students in preceding months as its administration downplayed reports of financial troubles.  The retention stats – which were publicly available in the 2019 recruiting cycle – accurately pointed to a deeply troubled institution.
  • Lewis & Clark, one of the best know private schools in the region, posts retention stats approximately at expectations.

 

The University of Portland’s 4,000 student undergrad program flies under the radar but enjoys strong retention

 

Community colleges

While the focus will be on Bachelor’s programs in this series, we did want to look at community colleges occasionally, and to point out individual programs with particularly strong results.  The chart below illustrates the institutional challenges community colleges face.

  • 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.

Everett Community College north of Seattle posts the best retention of any community college in the region but also enrolls fewer Pell eligible students than many other 2-year programs

 

Thoughts

  • This region is easy to navigate for applicants.  Only three of the schools surveyed have an average admissions rate below 70%.
  • The University of Washington looks to be the class of the schools looked at here.  A very affordable option for state residents (2022/23 projected Average Net Cost of $22k), it is on par with the cost of the University of Colorado – Boulder for out-of-state students.
  • Reed – with its mediocre retention stats – is one of the few colleges that refuses to submit data to US News for its college rankings.  While those rankings receive wide criticism – deservedly so – the fact that Reed, with its questionable performance metrics, is choosing to do so is interesting.  The phrase “motivated reasoning” comes to mind.
  • If you had to pick one rising institution in this region, Gonzaga looks to be a good bet, especially given the visibility of its men’s basketball program. Located in a thriving and desirable metro area, it boasts very strong retention levels (average of 94% for the years in question) comparable to the “hot schools” looked at in the 2022 cycle review. And, indeed, even before COVID jumbled the market, the university was showing sharp increases in selectivity.

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