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Understanding College Retention and Completion Rates

As you look at colleges and weigh their strengths against one another, you will come upon many different data points. Terms like retention and completion rates will pop up again and again, and you may wonder how exactly you’re intended to use this date. In fact, you might just wonder what these data points even mean.


In this post, we’ll break down retention and completion rates, discussing what each means and how it might be weighed in the college search. If you’ve been wading through college data and have encountered these terms, we recommend you don’t miss this post.

What Is a Retention Rate?

Retention rate is a data point that refers specifically to how many first year students return to a college for a second year. This is expressed as a percentage of the whole first year class. Generally retention rates include full-time and part-time students but do not include students who are not enrolled in a degree seeking program.


You will find information about college retention rates in many of the large national ranking publications, such as U.S. News and World Reports. If you’re looking for a specific college or university and can’t find it there, you can look it up by name on the College Navigator section of the National Center for Education Statistics webpage.


High retention rates generally indicate that a college does a good job of getting students invested in and attached to multiple aspects of its community. This includes things like academics, professors, campus and campus life, and social offerings. Students who feel attached in at least one or two ways to their community are less apt to transfer to another school. Schools with lower acceptance rates tend to have higher retention rates. This is probably because a certain amount of attachment is established simply through a selective admissions process and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from being accepted.


Low retention rates sometimes occur when a college isn’t able to form strong connections well enough or early enough. A low retention rate usually indicates that students’ needs are not being met in some way, whether this is through oversized classes where students have little chance to connect with classmates or professors, sparse social offerings, an unwelcoming campus environment or a lack of student resources.


As you look at retention rates, it’s helpful to know the national average. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the national average retention rate in 2018 was 61.1% for all students, and 73.8% for full-time students.

What Is a Completion Rate?

Completion rate is a data point indicating what percentage of students who start a degree program at a school are able to complete it. Typically these are given for six year increments, so in the case of a student who begins a degree that is usually completed in four years, if he or she completes the degree within six years of starting it, he or she will be considered as having completed the degree within the acceptable amount of time to be included in the completion rate.


You can find data about completion rates in the same places where you find data about retention rates. Typically these statistics are widely available in college rankings and you might even find them listed on a college’s website directly, if the school deems them worthy of broadcasting. Otherwise, you can always search for a college by name on the College Navigator section of the National Center for Education Statistics webpage to find its completion rate.


High completion rates typically indicate that a college does a good job of supporting students as they seek a degree. This might mean that certain services like advising, tutoring, and mentoring are common and easy to access. Often, schools with higher completion rates are those that accommodate students’ financial needs better, perhaps by providing flexible schedules for part-time jobs and guaranteeing sufficient financial aid. Generally speaking, a school with a high completion rate will support students in all areas of college life, from academics, to finances, and beyond.


Low completion rates are usually associated with the opposite. A school with a low completion rate might not provide enough financial aid, might not offer sufficient tutoring or advising services, or may just simply not have the student resources that much of its population needs.


Currently, the national average completion rate for all colleges is 58.3%. This means that two out of every five students who begin a degree do not complete it within six years. While this might seem like a dim prospect, the good news is that these numbers have been improving steadily in recent years.

Why Are These Retention and Completion Rates Important?

Statistics such as retention and completion rates are fairly new pieces of data available to families as they consider college choices. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that completion and retention rates become widely available to the public. As more and more data surfaced, the pressure on institutions also increased, as each wanted to outperform the others. With the 2015 introduction of the College Scorecard, which serves as a government sponsored source for college performance data, the race was on to increase the statistics that matter most.


Completion and retention rates are a great indicator of how likely you are to continue at a college and to complete a degree there. While no single statistic can tell you exactly what your odds are, these numbers give a good overall picture of how well students connect with and attach to their college community, and how well they are supported during their time there.

What If You’re Considering a College with Low Retention or Completion Rate?

Statistics don’t always give a full picture, and it’s completely possible that the school that’s the best fit for you may not have great retention or completion rates. This doesn’t mean you won’t finish; it just means that other students haven’t finished perhaps because the school wasn’t truly a fit for their goals and needs. It’s best to do your own homework in advance to decide if a college is a great fit for you personally.


If one of your top picks has low completion or retention rates, look closely to decide if the factors that influence these low rates will apply to you. Sometimes the reasons are financial. Do you need to rely on consistent or significant financial aid? Look hard at your finances to decide if a college’s package is good enough to sustain you throughout your entire degree program. Do you need tutoring or enjoy meeting regularly with an adviser? Find out how readily available these resources are. Do you have a specific major or program of study in mind? Ask if retention and completion data is available for this specific department. The more you can narrow the causes of the poor retention and completion rates, the better you’ll be able to determine if and how these factors might impact you.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.