Information Brief 2004-1

Retention, ACT Composite Score, and College GPA: What's the Connection?

A common way to think of student retention in postsecondary education is completion of the first-year of college, followed by subsequent re-enrollment in the second year. Facilitation offirst-to-second year retention can be valuable for both students and institutions of higher education. For example, retention rates can have a significant effect on the economic well-being of a college, as well as be fundamental indicators of ultimate graduation rates for an institution (Habley, 2002; Levitz, Noel, & Richter, 1999). In addition, Tinto (1993) reports that non-retained students experience a loss of not only self-esteem, but also of future income.

Because of these factors, many institutional researchers seek to find student characteristics that will help flag prospective and enrolled students who are at risk for not returning. Such characteristics have included precollege student achievement (Harmston, 2003) and first-year college GPA (Tinto, 1993). Typically, such studies are geared toward finding student characteristics that differ for returning and non-returning students. Along with confirming that pre-college student achievement and freshman year college GPAs are strongly related to each other and to retention, this brief also shows that these relationships differ for students who return and do not return for their second year.


Results in this brief were based on ACT Assessment scores, first-year college GPAs, and first-to-second year retention status. Student information was obtained from institutions participating in ACT's Student Retention Service across academic years 1999–2000, 2000–2001, and 2001–2002, comprising 366,377 students at 211 different four-year institutions. ACT's Student Retention Service Report contrasts academic and non-cognitive variables of students who have and have not returned for their second year.

Is Retention Related to ACT Composite Scores and College GPA?

Figure 1 summarizes information based on ACT Composite scores and college cumulative GPAs of students who returned and did not return to their home institution for a second year. Average ACT Composite scores were 1.5 scale score points higher for returners than non-returners. Similarly, the average cumulative first-year GPA for returners was 0.9 GPA units higher than for non-returners. The correlation between ACT Composite scores and first-year cumulative GPAs was 0.45 for returning students, compared to a correlation of 0.27 for non-returning students.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Summary Statistics by Retention Status


Students may leave during their first-year for many reasons, academic and otherwise. Student motivation, fit with major and/or institution, and a variety of other non-academic factors (e.g., finances) are important considerations. However, the differences in mean GPAs and ACT Composite scores described above for returning and non-returning students underscore the conclusion that academic achievement plays a major role in student retention.

The observed means and correlations shed light on another important finding: though ACT Composite scores are effective predictors of academic success in general, the scores are more effective at predicting academic success among returning students than non-returning students. This finding, as well as the mean difference in GPAs, suggest that students returning for a second year have overcome some of the academic and non-academic obstacles that influenced their counterparts not to return.

Because ACT Composite scores and college cumulative GPAs are often readily available to institutional researchers and academic advisors, their acquisition and analysis do not tax already-stretched budgets.The present results, coupled with the availability of ACT Composite scores and GPAs, suggest that whether retention is looked at from a research perspective or from the bottom-line, ACT Composite scores and college cumulative GPAs are useful for institutions seeking to predict and/or facilitate college student retention.

Habley, W. (2002). Why Bother with Student Retention. Presentation at ACT's Office of Educational Practices Recruitment and Retention Workshops.

Harmston,M. T. (2003). Cross-validation of persistence models for incoming freshmen. Paper presented at the 2003 Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, Tampa, FL.

Levitz, R. S., Noel, L., & Richter, B. J. (1999). Strategic moves for retention success. In Promising practices in recruitment, remediation, and retention (G. H. Gaither, Ed.). New Directions for Higher Education, 108, 31–50.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd Ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.