Retention occurs when an admitted student returns in (usually) consecutive years, presumably until degree completion is achieved. Of all retention figures, the most critical is retention from the first to the second year. This is because the first year is commonly a traditional-aged college student’s most challenging time. They have to adjust to different social and academic norms and requirements. Students who have trouble with these adjustments often do not return to campus for their second year, and are therefore not retained. Those who do return to campus for their second year are demonstrating persistence. Usually this is a result of a successful (or at least a perceived successful or partially successful) first year in college. Thus, persistence (retention) from the first to the second year is our principal gauge of having made a successful transition to college.
Nature of Data
Data on first-to-second year retention come from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). Each institution that participates in any federal financial aid program must complete an annual IPEDS report. Data from those reports are made available to the public. The focus of the IPEDS report is not on all students but rather on what is known as the cohort of “first-time, full-time freshmen.” At most institutions, first-time, full-time freshmen comprise the great majority of each fall’s entering class of traditional-age college students.
Like most data, first-to-second year retention data have little absolute meaning. To understand whether the first-to-second year retention rate indicates success requires the rate be compared against some benchmark (or target). For purposes of first-to-second year retention rates, Oglethorpe takes as its comparison group the twenty-three 4-year post-secondary institutions (including Oglethorpe) which are members of GICA (Georgia Independent College Association). All 23 institutions are private, baccalaureate-granting, not-for-profit colleges chartered in the State of Georgia. The comparison group gives us a natural way to gauge what reasonable targets are for parameters such as first-to-second year retention.
Oglethorpe University should demonstrate a first-to-second year retention rate which is at least in the top half of the GICA group used for comparison.
Data and Analysis
The data set described above is presented below (values are percent of first-time freshmen students retained). Note that, as of spring 2017, the most recent year for which final data (as opposed to provisional data) are available from IPEDS is for academic year 2013-2014 (which is called IPEDS Year 2014 in the graph).
The graph clearly shows that, year after year, Oglethorpe’s first-to-second year retention rate is among the higher ones relative to other GICA institutions. Indeed, Oglethorpe’s retention rate is always higher than the mean GICA rate, and Oglethorpe’s rank order always puts it in the top half of its 22 GICA competitors (and frequently in the top third or even better). Also, for the previous decade, all institutions in the U.S. showed retention rates hovering between approximately 71 and 72 percent. Obviously Oglethorpe’s rates over these same years are typically at least a few percentage points—and up to nine or ten percentage points—higher than the U.S. average.