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 has done the heavy 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!

Student success gains do not happen by accident. Anyone who has 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. And – to make matters more complicated, the state of the 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 to look at the IPEDS data to find out what year-to-year gains 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:

  • One-Year Retention rates of first-time students (This metric is collected on first-time full-time students only). Fall-to-fall retention.
  • Six-Year 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. (Completion within 8 years).

Each metric analyzed includes:

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

One-Year 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, and after several years of improvement, retention rates have declined for the last two years.

 Retention Rate Trend Final 2022

Year-over-year changes have been minimal for private not-for-profit institutions, but declines have been evidenced in public and private for-profit institutions.

Retention Rate Change Trend 2022

Six-Year Graduation Rates

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

Graduation rates have been consistently lower at private for-profit institutions.

Graduation Rate Trend 2022

Year-over-year graduation rate changes have been minimal for private not-for-profit intuitions institutions, but growing at public institutions over the last two years. While significant improvement in year-over-year rate change was evidenced at private for-profit institutions in the early part of this time horizon, changes have been less significant over the last two years.

Graduation Rate Change Trend 2022

Eight-Year Outcome Measure Rates

Among first-time full-time students, eight-year graduation rates are lower at private for-profit institutions than at private not-for-profit and public institutions. However, private for-profit and public institutions have improved their graduation rates more over the last three years in nearly every category as compared to private not-for-profit institutions.

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

First-time Full-time Eight-Year Rates - 2022Graduation 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 improved more among the Non-Pell population than among Pell-grant recipients.

First-time Part-time Eight-Year Rates - 2022

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. 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 -2022

Graduation rates are higher across all categories among transfer-in part-time students than first-time students. More significant graduation rate increases have been seen among Pell recipients at private for-profit and not-for-profit institutions in recent years.

Transfer-in Part-time Eight-Year Rates - 2022

When considering all student categories together, the most significant graduation rate increases are at private for-profit institutions. Average graduation rate increases have been lower at public and private not-for-profit institutions.

All Student Eight-Year Rates - 2022

Are There Any Other Alternatives for Measuring Student Success?


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 underperformance 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).