What is this measure, and why is this measure important?
This indicator represents the persistence of students from freshman to sophomore year and provides insights into students’ progress through the postsecondary education system. This measure is important in ensuring that students are on track to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree in a timely manner.
Retention rates are calculated by aggregating, by sector and/or state, the institution-level adjusted entering cohorts and the number of students from these cohorts that enroll the following fall. Estimates therefore can be interpreted as a percentage of students in the given sector and/or state.
Given that students enter college with a variety of objectives (e.g., work and study versus solely study) and that institutions have varying missions, we have presented a variety of sectors for both full- and part-time students. This provides a more nuanced picture of retention across the nation’s institutions — one that is sometimes lost in favor of presenting a single statistic.
What are the policy issues associated with this measure?
Persistence indicators are one of the tools used to better understand the nature of educational progress and the challenges faced by institutions or a state as a whole for increasing educational attainment. In the words of Amy Guidera from the Data Quality Campaign, “We need to use data as a flashlight, not a hammer.”1 The appropriate context (e.g., institutional mission) should be taken into account when considering whether persistence indicators such as retention can or should be used as accountability measures. These data are aggregated across institutions in order to provide a weighted average for states and the nation. Larger institutions thus have more of an impact on state results. Policymakers should consider the range of institutional outcomes that contribute to overall state figures when developing strategies to improve retention.
Institutions should make every effort to learn from students who are not retained (e.g., through exit surveys) in order to develop policies that result in the best outcomes for the students and for the institutions. Administrators and faculty should examine the ways in which they can improve the transition of new students from the first day of orientation to sophomore year.
Where are we now?
As of 2010, 59.9 percent of first-time, full-time, degree- or certificate-seeking freshmen at public two-year colleges are retained from freshman to sophomore year (Figure 9.1a). Part-time students account for approximately four of every 10 freshmen in this sector, and only 41.4 percent of these part-time students return for sophomore year (Figure 9.1b). When disaggregated by state, the full-time freshman-to-sophomore retention rate at public two-year colleges ranges from 45.6 percent in Alaska to 68.7 percent in California (Figure 9.1c).
As of 2010, 79.5 percent of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen at public four-year colleges are retained from freshman to sophomore year (Figure 9.1a). Part-time students account for a small proportion (roughly 5 percent) of the overall freshmen enrollment in this sector, and 50 percent of these part-time students who enter in the fall return for sophomore year (Figure 9.1b). When disaggregated by state, the full-time freshman-to-sophomore retention rate at public four-year colleges ranges from 53.6 percent in the Delaware to 87.8 percent in the District of Columbia (Figure 9.1d).
As of 2010, 80 percent of first-time, full-time degree-seeking freshmen at private not-for-profit four-year colleges are retained from freshman to sophomore year (Figure 9.1a). As in the public four-year sector, part-time students account for only a few percentage points of the first-year enrollment, and 46.8 percent of these part-time students who enter in fall return for sophomore year (Figure 9.1b). When disaggregated by state, the full-time freshman-to-sophomore retention rate at private not-for-profit four-year colleges ranges from 51.5 percent in Delaware to 89.1 percent in the District of Columbia (Figure 9.1e).
When interpreting this measure, what should be kept in mind?
Retention is based solely on continuing within the institution in which one originally enrolled. Students who successfully transfer to other institutions count against the original institution but do not impact the receiving institution.
Caution is warranted when interpreting the estimates related to for-profit and private not-for-profit sectors in this indicator. The number of for-profit institutions grew significantly between fall 2007 and fall 2008 and the underlying enrollment changed as well. This results in less stable estimates for this sector. Also, there are very few private not-for-profit two-year institutions, which also leads to unstable estimates.
Finally, as indicated above, the proportion of first-time students who are enrolled part-time versus full-time varied substantially by sector. For example, part-time students account for a much larger portion of the student enrollment at public two-year colleges compared to public four-year colleges. This should be considered when examining the part- and full-time retention rates for these sectors.
The estimates contained in this report should not be compared against estimates based on the 2003-06 surveys. Retention rates were collected on the 2003-06 IPEDS enrollment surveys, but institutions were calculating and reporting retention rates based on different student groups (e.g., fulltime students versus all students; original versus adjusted cohort). This led to changes in the 2007 survey, whereby institutions now report the raw numbers for clearly defined cohorts. IPEDS then calculates the rates for institutions based on these raw numbers.
1 Guidera, Amy. (2010, June). Speech presented in conjunction with Education Week’s “Diplomas Count” press conference at the National Press Club, Washington, DC.