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Fewer College Students Returning for Second Year

First-year college retention is slipping among the nation’s four-year, public and private institutions, while retention rates are increasing at two-year public colleges, researchers say.

Retention rates among four-year institutions are at the lowest level since researchers at ACT, Inc., a national testing service, began gathering such data 26 years ago. According to the latest results of an annual survey conducted by ACT, the percentage of U.S. college freshmen who return to the same college for their second year of school hovers around 66 percent. Part of a three-year downward trend, the number of college students retained overall by postsecondary institutions declined 3 percent from 2005 to 2008.

But retention rates for two-year institutions are at an all-time high, according to the survey. Fifty-four percent of students at two-year public colleges returned for their second year in 2007-2008, up from 51 percent the previous year.

“With the rising cost of attending college and uncertainty about the economy, many students may believe they can’t afford a second year at a four-year school,” said Wes Habley, who has researched retention issues for the past 20 years and is a principal associate of ACT.

Habley called the survey’s results troubling, but emphasized that students are not dropping out but instead are trending toward other options such as choosing to attend less expensive community colleges instead of four-year colleges and universities.

The survey failed to outline specific reasons why college retention rates continue to fall among four-year institutions, while retention rates at two-year institutions rise; but the report did cite the sluggish economy and a tendency among many college students to take breaks between school terms as possible explanations.

“Our data only tracked the percentage of students who came back to the same institution,” Habley said. “I would assert that with online education, increasing mobility and a variety of other factors including the economy, some students are choosing to leave, but some are also choosing alternative ways of earning college credit.”

While other four-year institutions are experiencing declines in first-year retention rates, Ohio University is an exception to the rule in that it is experiencing an uptick after a six-year decline.

During the 2007-08 academic year, there was a 2 percent increase in first-year retention, according to the university’s office of institutional research. First-year retention at Ohio University at Athens now stands at 80 percent after a 2 percent drop last year and declines of 1 percent each of the previous six years, according to the school’s data.

“There is no magic bullet for retention. It’s really kind of a shotgun effort of a lot of different people. We’ve been doing a lot for the past several years. One of the first things we started was the ‘student readiness inventory’ to find our high-risk students for retention,” said Craig Cornell, vice provost for enrollment management.

“Through that process, we’ve been able to identify high-risk students and get them into several different help areas,” Cornell added. “We’ve created learning communities, which are a group of students taking courses together. About 55 percent or 2,200 of our freshmen students are in a learning community.”

School officials at Ohio University, who are monitoring the economy very closely, understand that this year’s group of freshman could be severely impacted.

“The economy hit rock bottom in September or October,” Cornell said. “It is this year’s class that we are watching closely. The [data] indicate that we will have another positive retention figure. But we are very concerned about the economy and the affordability of college across the country let alone our university.”

Institution Type

Percentage of Students Retained 2007-08

Data Compiled by ACT, Inc.

Private Four-Year Institutions


Public Four-Year Institutions


Two-Year Institutions


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