What is a good retention or graduation rate goal at four-year colleges and universities?

What is a Good Retention or Graduation Rate Goal at Four-Year Colleges and Universities?

Senior Leader: What is a good retention or graduation rate goal?

Me: When is your accreditation report due?

Senior Leader: Wow! How did you know we are in the middle of an accreditation cycle?

Me: This is an extremely common question. So much so, you’ll be pleased to know that this article that has done the heavily lifting analysis for you so that you can know what is a good retention or graduation rate goal at four-year colleges and universities.

A Goal of 1 Percentage Point Seems to Be the Norm

If you look at a few dozen strategic plans, you’ll find a common theme – ‘our goal is to increase our student success rates by 5 percentage-points over the next five years.’ Or translated – about 1 percentage-point per year for five years.

One percentage-point (pp) gain per year?!? That doesn’t sound like much!

Anyone who has ever tried to move the needle on student success knows that a gain of 1pp is significant and requires an enormous amount of coordinated effort from the institution. Student success gains do not happen on accident. And – to make matters more complicated, the state of economy can work against those efforts. (I describe more on how to account for the ‘economy’ factor later in this article.)

What Type of Gains Do Institutions Actually Achieve?

When setting a student success rate goal, we need to be prepared for the question … “What are you basing this goal upon?” And … you guessed it; I leveraged my IPEDS expertise look to IPEDS data to find out – what are the year-to-year gains that other institutions are actually achieving? In this section, I present the results from this mega-data analysis (so that you can benefit from the results without doing the deep analytic work – you have many other pressing matters – like increasing student success).

IPEDS collects data on three different student success metrics at four-year colleges and universities:

  • Retention rates of first-time students (This metric is collected on first-time full-time students only).
  • Graduation rates of first-time full-time students.
  • Outcome Measures rates of all undergraduate students – broken out by full- vs. part-time, first-time vs transfer-in, and Pell Grant vs. Non-Pell Grant.

Each metric analyzed includes:

  • Multiple years for trend analysis
  • Data disaggregated by sector
  • Average rates each year
  • Year-over-year rate gain/loss

Retention Rates

Retention rates have been relatively flat at private not-for-profit and public institutions in recent years. They have been consistently lower at private for-profit institutions, but that has improved over the last five years.

Retention Rate Trend at Four-Year Institutions

Year-over-year changes have been minimal for private not-for-profit intuitions and public institutions.

Retention Rate Change Trend at Four-Year InstitutionsGraduation Rates

A similar pattern is seen with graduation rates – which have been relatively flat at private not-for-profit and public institutions.

While graduation rates have been consistently lower at private for-profit institutions, there has been improvement – a four-percentage-point increase in the last five years.

Graduation Rate Trend at Four-Year Institutions

Year-over-year graduation rate changes have been minimal for private not-for-profit intuitions and public institutions. However, there has been fluctuation in year-over-year rate change at private for-profit institutions.Graduation Rate Change Trend at Four-Year Institutions

Outcome Measure Rates

Among first-time full-time students, eight-year graduation are lower at private for-profit institutions than at private not-for-profit and public institutions. But, there was a more significant three-year point change at private for-profit institutions than at the other institution types.

Eight-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students have been stagnant at private not-for-profit intuitions and public institutions.

First-time Full-time Eight-Year Rates

Graduation rates for first-time part-time students are more similar across institution types, but still generally lower at private for-profit institutions. These rates among first-time part-time students have been stagnant or decreasing slightly at public institutions.

First-time Part-time Eight-Year Rates

Graduation rates are higher across all categories among transfer-in full-time students than first-time students. Graduation rate increases have been strongest among private for-profit institutions, and non-Pell recipients. It should be noted that transfer-in students are those that start at one institution and transfer-in to another institution. IPEDS calls this population “non-first-time students.”

Transfer-In Full-time Eight-Year Rates

Graduation rates are higher across all categories among transfer-in part-time students than first-time students. Most graduation rate increases are seen in private for-profit institutions in recent years.

Transfer-in Part-time Eight-Year Rates

When considering all student categories together, the most significant graduation rate increases are at private for-profit institutions. Average graduation rates have been stagnant at public institutions.

All Student Eight-Year Rates

Are There Any Other Alternatives for Measuring Student Success?

Absolutely.

The rates above assume that 100% is achievable by all institutions. It’s not as if any college or university leader actually aims for low student success rates. Every higher education administrator wants to see ALL students succeed.

So, rather than talking about percentage-point gains, let’s focus on over and under performance given your college or university’s specific institution and student characteristics. Let’s turn the conversation to ‘how well did your institution do at helping students succeed given your unique characteristics?’

And – let’s emphasize more than traditional students (e.g., first-time full-time).

I’ve done just that – calculating the over and under performance of every four-year college and university in the U.S. – disaggregated by 12 student groups. Check out my article on A Better Way to Measure Student Success to learn more.




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.