Analysis highlights persistent gaps in first-year student retention

An analysis of federal data by The Hechinger Report finds that while college enrollment rates are growing, institutions are struggling to increase the share of students who return for a second year.

More than a million students per year drop out of college

The Hechinger Report pulled the most recent data on four-year colleges from the National Center for Education Statistics. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than twenty percent of full-time freshmen nationwide fail to return for a second year. That figure is even higher for first-generation students, one-third of whom drop out within three years. Consulting firm ReUp Education estimates that, overall, more than a million students quit college each year.

Nationally, retention rates in recent years have improved only slightly at four-year universities, despite a growing sensitivity to these gaps and their consequences. Since 2011, retention rates have increased by 2.6 percentage points at public universities and by 1.3 percent at private nonprofit colleges.

Sources of and remedies for low retention

Exploring why it’s so difficult to move the dial on retention, The Hechinger Report notes that drop-out decisions often are not a consequence of academic challenges. More than 40 percent of students who leave college have B average GPAs, according to education consulting company Civitas Learning.

One “exit survey” sent in 2014 by the University of Washington to students who quit before graduating sheds some light on retention challenges. In explaining their reasons for leaving early, respondents cited an inability to make payments on time, waning financial aid, feelings of isolation, and family obligations.

Suggesting opportunities for improvement—especially given the financial implications of lost tuition dollars—The Hechinger Report notes that often schools do not sufficiently follow up with students who do not return, and many continue to focus their resources on recruitment instead of retention.

The analysis also highlights efforts by Texas A&M University at Texarkana to lower its dropout rate. The school’s 13 percent increase in enrollment between August 2014 and August 2017 was accompanied by a jump in its dropout rate, from 44 percent in 2013 to 55 percent in May 2016. The school has since brought its dropout rate back down to 2013 levels by raising awareness of a system that tracks progress against graduation requirements, tutoring at-risk students, and flagging students with many email reminders to come for in-person advising appointments.

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