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If you are choosing a college, one statistic that might be important for you is the school's freshman retention rate. Put simply, this is the percentage of students who choose to return to the school for a second year. The figure may say something about the students enrolled at the institution, or it may speak volumes about the school itself.

What is a Good Rate?

You can find college retention rates in several places. The SAT site lists them, and they are posted on the US News and World Report College rankings. Public community colleges have the lowest average retention rates of a bit less than 54 percent. Private liberal arts schools rank next to the bottom with a 69.6 rate. Public research institutions like state universities average 72 percent, while private universities have an average retention rate of 80.4 percent. According to these statistics, the median rate is 65.7, although more recent sources list it as high as 77 percent. Harvard's rate is 95 percent.

Does a Low Rate Translate to a Poor School?

It isn't always the case that a low rate means a substandard institution. What it does indicate is that there are some problems. For instance, public institutions tend to attract students who rely heavily on financial aid. They might have to take a break from their education to get more funding. It could be that the school is recruiting and admitting students who are a poor match for the educational environment. Students who have a sense of belonging and "fitting in" at a school tend to return. Sometimes schools lack support services like career and financial counseling that students feel are necessary to their success. A low retention rate could result when a school struggles financially. Such institutions might be cutting programs and laying off staff. They might also be unable to afford equipment and other resources like labs. A school without enough faculty members could mean a high student-faculty ratio, and that limits interaction between students and educators.

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Another factor that skews the retention rate is that students are increasingly attending lower-tuition schools for their first two years and then transferring to other schools to finish their degree programs. A low retention rate could actually mean that a school is accomplishing its mission. An institution that targets disadvantaged or non-traditional students might have low retention rates because they are reaching those groups. People in those populations tent to have life challenges and they interrupt and restart their programs several times on their way to a degree. That is reflected in a low retention rate, but is actually a positive statement about the school's mission.

What Other Ratings Should I Consider?

The student-to-faculty ratio is an indicator of how many students there are in relation to the number of faculty. A low ratio like 9:1 could mean smaller class sizes. You might also look at the percentage of classes that have a greater number of students. You can find this statistic in the US News and other college rankings. Just as important as the retention rate is the graduation rate. Most students today do not graduate in four years, but a high percentage of students who do graduate within four, five or six years is a good indicator of a school's success.

There are many factors to consider when you are choosing a school. Sometimes the location of the university or college is important. You might feel more at home on an urban campus or enjoy the outdoor recreation at a rural school. The Freshman Retention Rate is just one indicator of whether a school would be a good fit for you.

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