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Why Freshman Retention Rates Are Important

Suzanne Shaffer

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My daughter’s first year of college was anything but rosy. It was a rough fall semester due to homesickness and missing her boyfriend back home.

Every other week she talked about transferring to a college closer to home. She struggled academically because she chose to join a sorority and that decision caused her grades to slip. Toward the end of her first year, a friend from home was killed in a car accident, making it even harder to deal with the grief far away from family and old friends.

Thankfully, her college had programs in place to help her during these common first-year struggles. She took advantage of tutoring and her professors worked with her to help improve her grades. Campus counseling services helped her deal with her grief. As she got more involved in campus activities and participated in the mandatory Freshman Seminar course, her attitude changed. She made more friends, her homesickness subsided, and she was able to move on from her high school relationship and seek the companionship of like-minded college students.

My daughter was not unique. Many first-year students don’t make it back for sophomore year. The reasons run the gamut from family problems and loneliness to academic struggles and a lack of money. If schools have a low freshman retention rate, there’s a reason. Some colleges do a great job of taking care of their first-year students; others do not.

It's normal for students to struggle during the college transition. Knowing this, you should understand the importance of a college’s retention rate and learn how to help your student adjust.

This is also a key metric for the parents of college-bound high school students to focus on during the college search process.

What is a College Retention Rate?

According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website, retention rate is the percentage of a school's first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. A higher retention rate can signal a positive student body who adjusts well to their freshman year. A lower retention rate could signal the opposite.

The type of institution can also affect the retention percentage. A community or local college could have lower retention rates because many students transfer after two years to destination colleges to continue their degrees. Retention rates are typically higher at the most selective public and private nonprofit institutions. At public 4-year institutions, the retention rate was 82 percent overall, 96 percent at the most selective institutions, and 59 percent at the least selective institutions (i.e., those with an open admissions policy).

What Do Current Statistics Reveal?

Quoting a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Inside HigherEd reported that the majority of students who started college in fall 2020 came back for their second year. While the overall retention rate of 75 percent didn’t quite reach the pre-pandemic level of 75.9 percent, it increased 1.1 percentage points compared to the students who first enrolled in fall 2019 and had their first year of college interrupted by COVID-19 pandemic campus closures.

Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the center, said while the retention-rate increase may seem like a hopeful finding, its significance is complicated. The rise coincided with steep enrollment declines, with first-time student enrollment falling 9.9 percent in fall 2020, a loss of 255,000 students, compared to fall 2019.

That means the students who persisted to fall 2021 were largely students who had the funds and supports to begin college mid-pandemic and were more likely to successfully stay enrolled, thus raising the retention rate, she said. Meanwhile, many older students or students from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds just didn’t start college at all that fall.

“Changes year over year in student persistence rates have much to do with the makeup of the entering student cohort,” Ryu stated. Low-income and older learners were more likely to defer starting college in fall 2020 compared to “lucky student populations that have resources, who have willingness and ability to enroll in college in the midst of the variety of pandemic-related disruptions.”

Why is the Freshman Retention Rate Important?

Freshman retention rates are a valuable tool for college-bound students and their parents. It’s also an important data tool for parents of current first-year students. The rate indicates the percentage of students who return to the same school for sophomore year. This can be an indicator of student outcomes (eventual graduation rates) at a particular school.

If your current college freshman attends a college with a low retention rate, problems may occur that need to be addressed. Familiarize yourself with campus resources. Be conscious of your student’s struggles, especially during their first semester.

What Does a High Retention Rate Say About a College?

Students are most vulnerable during their first year of college. They are transitioning to a new environment, meeting new people, and dealing with new academic challenges and pressure. For many students, it’s their first time living away from home. They will experience, for the first time, a lack of supervision and an unprecedented amount of independence.

Colleges with high retention rates typically have programs in place to assist students with this transition and help the student integrate into the campus community. These schools are focused on student success and meeting student needs. Small class sizes, accessible faculty, tutoring for all students, mental health services, and first-year seminar classes and cohorts go a long way to encouraging students to return after the first year.

A high rate can also be an indicator of the strength of a college’s admissions selections. These schools pride themselves in admitting students who are prepared to handle the demands of college coursework. In addition, the commitment involved in applying to these selective schools means the student is determined to succeed.

What Does a Low Retention Rate Mean?

Low retention rates can be symptomatic of a college’s inability to make a meaningful and lasting connection with their students. This rate might indicate an inadequate amount of student support services or high student-to-instructor ratios resulting in a lack of academic assistance. A student may feel lost in the crowd and find it difficult to make those personal connections that help them adjust to and thrive in the new college environment.

A low retention rate can also be indicative of a commuter college. When my son enrolled in college after the Marines, he quickly discovered students didn’t stay on campus. Since it was a large state school surrounded by large cities in close proximity, most students either lived at home or left campus on the weekends. He was left alone in his dorm and felt isolated. It made it difficult for him to assimilate and ultimately contributed to him not returning to school after his first semester.

On the other hand, a low retention rate can also indicate that the college is a “feeder” school for students wishing to transfer to another 4-year college. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has a low freshman retention rate (56%). Many local students attend in the hopes of transferring to the flagship university Texas A&M. They attend for their core requirements and move on to graduate from the larger college.

Learn how to help your commuter student feel more connected to their campus >

What Happens If My Student Transfers?

Another reason parents should be concerned about the retention rate is that leaving a school after a single year is expensive. Transferring credits between colleges can be difficult. Some credits you have already paid for might not transfer. This can add expense when your student needs to retake a class. In addition, any merit aid locked in at the current school will be lost when transferring.

When my daughter brought up the topic of transferring, I reminded her about the tremendous amount of merit aid she would lose if she were to transfer to another school. Sometimes transferring to another institution is the best or only option, but it's basically like hitting the reset button on freshman year. Your student will have to adjust to a new place, meet new friends, and start all over again. Merit aid at the new school may not be comparable and the college degree may end up costing you substantially more than you expected.

How Can I Help My Student Adapt to College Life?

If you are the parent of a high school student deciding which colleges to apply to, examine the retention rates for each school. Two good sources for college statistics are College Navigator and College Data. These two resources will help you make an informed college choice.

Large national publications like U.S. News and World Report will often have information available on an institution’s freshman retention rate and regularly publish lists showing the best and worst schools ranked by retention.

If your student is in college, you can be aware of some of typical first-year pitfalls. It’s critical to stay connected to your student’s experience so you can guide them through any distractions or issues that could impact their freshman year.

Some of these might include loneliness, homesickness, and academic stress. By knowing what to expect, you can prepare for what’s ahead. In "The Rhythm of the First Semester," my fellow CollegiateParent contributor David Tuttle provides a simple plan to help your student through the early months of college.

Wrapping Up

The best way your prospective college student can safeguard themselves from becoming a statistic and joining the waves of those who don’t return to college or who transfer after the first year is to make sure the college is a good fit academically, socially, and financially.

Once they're in college, it’s crucial they do their best to overcome any common first-year struggles. You can help by listening and directing them to available campus support and encouraging them to persevere. Knowing it is typical for first-year students to feel all the emotions of homesickness, loneliness, and stress will help them move past those struggles and forge ahead to sophomore year.

Need more advice? Check out these articles:
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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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