Fewer Students Returning to Same School for Second Year of College

Posted January 22, 2009

Iowa City, IA—The percentage of U.S. college freshmen who return to the same college for their second year of school is declining, according to the latest results of an annual survey conducted by ACT, Inc.

A total of 66 percent of first-year college students returned to the same institution for their second year of college in the 2007–2008 academic year, the lowest percentage since 1989. This figure is down from 68 percent in 2006–2007 and 69 percent in 2005–2006.

Retention is at its lowest level since data-gathering began in 1983 in five of the eight types of postsecondary institutions surveyed, including all private colleges. Those five college categories are: PhD public, PhD private, MA private, BA/BS private, and two-year private institutions.

"The recent trends are troubling, particularly in light of increasing efforts among colleges to retain students," said Wes Habley, ACT's principal associate, who has been conducting these analyses since 1983. "They suggest that more students may be opting out of college during or after their first year."

Not all of those non-returning students are necessarily dropping out, noted Habley. Some may be transferring to a different institution, while others may be "stopping out"—taking time off, perhaps to earn more money, with plans to return to school at a later date. The survey does not track the path of students after they leave a particular college.

The exception to the current downward trend is two year public colleges, with retention rates actually rising at these schools: 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. In fact, the current retention rate for two-year public institutions is at an all-time high.

Retention rates vary widely among different types of schools. They remain significantly higher at four-year schools (71 percent) than at two-year schools (54 percent), as has been the case historically. In addition, four-year private colleges continue to slightly outpace public schools (private – 73 percent; public – 71 percent), although the gap between the two is narrowing. Nevertheless, nearly all four-year institutional categories have experienced declines in retention over the past two years or more.

The data provide no specific answers as to why college retention rates have dropped overall or why they have conversely risen at two-year public colleges. One potential contributing factor, however, is the declining economy.

"There likely are economic factors at play," said Habley. "With the rising cost of attending college and uncertainty about the U.S. economy, students may believe they can't afford a second year at a four-year school. More students may be planning to complete two years at a community college, while others may be opting to stay at a two-year school rather than transfer to a more expensive four-year college."

The data in this report were gathered in ACT's annual survey of U.S. postsecondary institutions, which was completed and returned by more than 2,500 two-year and baccalaureate colleges and universities across the country.