How 'Good' is Your Retention Rate? (6 pages)

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How ‘Good’ is Your Retention Rate?
Using the CIRP Freshman Survey to evaluate undergraduate persistence

By the Higher Education Research Institute, University of California-Los Angeles


Enabling students to complete their undergraduate degrees is of fundamental

importance, not only to the students and their parents, but also to college and university

personnel. Graduation rates are often viewed as a measure of institutional performance

or accountability because high degree completion rates signify that both the institution

and its students have been successful. Even the federal government has recognized the

importance of degree completion through the Student Right to Know and Campus

Security Act, which requires baccalaureate-granting colleges and universities to make

public their degree completion rates.

But, is it reasonable to expect similar retention outcomes for all types of

institutions? Using the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s (CIRP) data, a

recent Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) study

1

found that two-thirds of the

variation among institutions in their degree completion rates is attributable to differences

in their entering classes rather than to differences in the effectiveness of their

undergraduate retention programs.

Under these conditions, comparisons between institutions in their degree

completion rates can be misleading if the academic preparation and other characteristics

of their students at the time of entry are not taken into account. Accordingly, the best

way to evaluate any institution’s actual degree completion rate is to compute an

expected degree completion rate based on the characteristics of the students when they

first enroll.

Longitudinal study of degree attainment

In a national study of degree attainment in America’s colleges and universities,

HERI used data on entering students from the 1994 CIRP Freshman Survey and degree

completion data provided six years later by the registrars at 262 baccalaureate-granting

institutions. There were three main objectives of the study:

To determine national degree completion rates by sex, race and type of

institution.

To identify entering-student characteristics that predict degree completion.

To develop formulas individual institutions can use to compute expected

retention rates.

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