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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Why is Freshman Retention Rate Important?

Freshman retention rate is a valuable metric for college-bound students when building their lists of potential schools to attend. At its most basic, freshman retention rate is a measurement of the percentage of freshmen who return to the same school for their sophomore year. This can be an indicator of potential student outcomes at a particular school, as students who have positive first years of college are more likely to stay in school and earn their degree. 


Why Freshman Retention Rate is Valuable 


Freshman retention rate is valuable to students beginning their college search and building college lists because, in many ways, it’s a calculation of student satisfaction and happiness with an institution—another way to view it is as an approval rating. Schools with high retention rates are typically adept at integrating new students into life on campus, provide the support new students require as well as offer the programs they’re interested in pursuing, and have created an attachment between the student and the institution. 


Freshman Retention Rate is Influenced by School 


Freshman retention rate can be a valuable tool when deciding between colleges, but it is most valuable when placed in context, as the number is often influenced by the type of institution a college is. 


For example, the most selective schools (those with acceptance rates below 25%) also generally have the highest retention rates—96% in 2016. Conversely, the least selective institutions (public schools with open admissions policies) have the lowest retention rates—62% in 2016. It can be extrapolated through these numbers that the rigorous admissions processes of the most selective schools help to bond a student to the institution. 


While we’ve looked at the best types of schools and the worst types of schools for freshman retention rate, the average four-year-degree-granting institution’s freshman retention rate in 2016 was 81%.


What a High Freshman Retention Rate Says about a School


Students are at their most vulnerable during their freshman year of college—they’re experiencing a new place, meeting new people, and facing new academic challenges. For the majority of students, this is also their first time away from home and they are encountering an unprecedented amount of independence. Furthermore, freshmen are removed from long-time support systems while not yet familiar with the resources available to them or integrated into the college community. With this in mind, schools with high retention rates can be viewed as places with welcoming environments, programs focused on student success, and a commitment to meeting a student needs—such as small class sizes, available classes in their major, accessible faculty, and well-kept facilities. 


High retention rates are also indicative of the strength of a school’s admissions office—perhaps another reason why selective schools have high freshman retention rates while schools with open admissions have such low retention rates. A college that admits students prepared to handle the demands of college coursework and an interest in a degree path chosen are simply more likely to have those students return for their sophomore year than schools that admit unprepared students without an idea of the type of degree they wish to pursue. 


What a Low Freshman Retention Rate Says about a School


Just as a high retention rate can be telling about a college or university, so can a low retention rate. Low freshman retention rates are commonly symptomatic of a school’s inability to make a meaningful connection with their students. A low freshman retention rate might indicate an inadequate amount of student support, such as a lack of financial and career counseling or high student-to-teacher ratios, which lead to a lack of academic assistance. Lack of academic aid is particularly important, as many students receive merit aid which is tied to academic performance—without the support they require, students are unable to meet the college’s academic standards and are forced to leave the school.  


Infrastructure can also be the cause of students leaving after freshman year—aging buildings and outdated resources such as labs can lead to students seeking greener pastures. In the same vein, a lack of available classes or struggling to enroll in classes related to their degree will have students looking for new schools capable of meeting their needs. A low freshman retention rate can also speak to the culture of a college campus or simply show that it’s a bad fit for many students. For example, a college with an active social calendar or numerous distractions on and off campus can be a challenging academic environment for students without self-discipline. 


The Cost of Transferring Colleges 


Another reason why freshman retention rate is an important metric is that leaving a school after a single year is expensive. Transferring credits between schools is not as straightforward as it seems from the outside, and a school not transferring credits is not uncommon. This can add the expense of needing to retake classes and also puts students at risk of graduating behind schedule—potentially adding expensive additional years of college while keeping them out of the workforce. 


Additionally, transferring schools is essentially hitting the reset button on a student’s freshman year. Many of the challenges a student just encountered, like familiarizing themselves with a new place and meeting new people, will need to be met again. 


Where to Find a School’s Freshman Retention Rate


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. The National Center for Education’s College Navigator enables students to look up colleges and universities by name to discover their freshman retention rate, along with a host of other information. 


According to U.S. News, the four best national universities in the country as it relates to freshman retention rate are:


  • Columbia University: 99%
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): 99%
  • University of Chicago: 99%
  • Yale University: 99%


And the four national universities with the lowest freshman retention rates are:


  • Wilmington University: 60% 
  • Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi: 56%
  • Texas Southern University: 52%
  • Tennessee State University: 47%


If you’re interested in learning more about freshman retention rate and its complementary metric, completion rate—a measurement of the percentage of people who begin a degree program and complete it—read our blog Understanding College Retention and Completion Rates. 


Wrapping Up Retention Rate


One of the best ways students can safeguard themselves from joining the numerous college students transferring colleges following their freshman year is to make sure they attend a school that matches their education goals and budget and offers their ideal college experience—such as setting, campus culture, and location. 


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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.