How 'Good' is Your Retention Rate? (6 pages)
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
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
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
To identify entering-student characteristics that predict degree completion.
To develop formulas individual institutions can use to compute expected