A Challenge To Achieving College Retention Goals – What Else Is New?

Cost-Retaining vs. admitting

Cost-Retaining vs. admitting

Simply put, the costs of admitting a new student is higher than retaining a current student.  In the U.S. and beyond, colleges and universities are faced with the challenge of improving student retention rates while also addressing the financial implications of investing in students who might not complete their education. Withdrawal and dropout from college can mean a financial loss of approximately $40,000 per student. This is particularly problematic when a given institution might invest many thousands of dollars each year in recruitment efforts to attract prospective students.  Once these recruited students enroll, colleges may invest dollars and resources including scholarships, financial aid, or other assistance and opportunities that otherwise could have gone to other students who potentially may have been retained at the institution. Poor retention rates and dropouts also affect alumni donor programs since the dropouts will never become alumni donors (Doucette, 2019).

Studies have reported that in the U.S. nearly 64 percent of students entering college or universities in 2004 actually completed their studies and earned the degree by spring 2009 (Hanover, 2014).  More recently, similar outcomes have been reported for cohorts in 2011, also suggesting that students who do not graduate may lose an estimated $3.8 billion in lifetime income (Doucette, 2019). Such statistics are compounded by the fact that there is a shrinking pool of eligible high school students, so retention becomes a paramount concern for achieving institutional goals for growth and success.


            Still, despite more than 30 years of focus on retention efforts at colleges and universities, those efforts have yielded slim results, with graduation rates remaining fairly constant over the years.  In many instances, administrators have felt at a loss when it comes to recommending and implementing new policies and retention efforts (Hanover Research, 2014).  Herein lies a real dilemma for colleges and universities . . . if we are losing revenue due to low retention rates, how can we afford to invest in resources that may demonstrate being effective in increasing persistence and retention?

Of course, this dilemma and the challenge of achieving higher retention rates isn’t breaking news.  The problem has persisted, so there is continued interest in how higher education institutions identify and address factors associated with retention. In an assortment of ways, most institutions monitor their retention data and have committees or some “early alert” processes that aim to improve or increase retention. However, many retention efforts focus on specific student populations such as low-income, first-generation, or underrepresented students that are generally placed into a presumptuous category of being “at risk,” while potentially overlooking other students who might also be at risk, but with different profiles.


So, what’s new in the efforts to address the challenge of college retention goals? Current data visualization applications make it possible to analyze comprehensive, multidimensional views of the students, or conduct cohort analyses to see how retention and persistence changes over different groups with different starting conditions, leading to better understanding of the data and rationale behind retention efforts.  Could this be a major step forward in data-informed student success efforts?

In case you missed it, last week’s post was an excellent overview of data visualization.

By. Terry L. Mills, PhD


Anon (n.d.) Using Cohort Analysis to Improve Retention.  Available online:


Ducette, D. (2019).  Colleges Tackle the Retention Problem with Emerging Tech. 

Available online: https://edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2018/05/colleges-tackle-retention-problem-emerging-tech.

Hanover Research (2014). Strategies For Achieving Student Success.  Available