Understanding Retention Rates for Colleges & Universities: Factors to Consider

Ginelle Testa

Retention rates play a crucial role in assessing the success and quality of higher education institutions. Colleges and universities strive to provide an environment that supports student learning, engagement, and overall satisfaction, with the ultimate goal of ensuring students persist and complete their degrees. 

The national average retention rate is about 61 percent. That is, 61% of freshmen nationally return to their colleges and universities to enroll in the following fall. Colleges and universities need to pay close attention to their rates because finances depend on tuition and reputation impacts future enrollment.

We’ll delve into the topic of retention rates, exploring the associated factors that help us gain a deeper understanding of what influences this critical aspect of higher education.

Factors Influencing Student Retention Rates

1. Academic Support

Institutions that offer tutoring, supplemental instruction, and advising services have higher rates of student persistence and success. Research from the Salesforce Rethinking Wellbeing in Higher Education report shows that when advising is more accessible, students are more likely to reach out — not only for academic support but for mental health, stress management, and overall well-being. More than half of students (51%) look for this support on their school’s website.

Developing effective study skills through workshops and courses helps students excel academically. Access to academic resources and facilities, such as libraries and research facilities, enhances student learning experiences. Engaged and supportive faculty members, along with technology integration for online support services, contribute to a positive academic environment that fosters student retention.

2. Financial Factors

Affordability and access to financial aid, scholarships, and grants are crucial considerations for students when deciding whether to continue their education. High tuition costs and limited financial resources can be barriers to persistence. 

Institutions that offer robust financial aid packages and transparent information on the cost of attendance tend to have higher retention rates. When asked, “What resources do you need from your university to be successful as a student?” in 2022, 40% of students answered, “More financial aid” (up from 34% in 2021, according to the Connected Student Report). 

Additionally, financial literacy programs that educate students on budgeting, managing student loans, and accessing financial resources can empower students to navigate their financial responsibilities, reducing financial stress and improving their likelihood of persisting in their studies. 

3. Academic Performance

Low academic performance, specifically in first and second-year STEM courses, is a key reason students switch to a non-STEM major or drop out of college. Complementing traditional lectures with active learning techniques and tools like Labster has been found to increase final grades by half a letter grade or higher, narrowing gaps in pass rates by 45%. This is critical for retention because many low-income and diverse STEM majors who struggle with gateway courses receive final course grades near, but below, the threshold required to persist in a STEM major. Active learning lifts them out of the danger zone.

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4. Campus Environment

Institutions that prioritize creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere through diversity initiatives, cultural programming, and student organizations often experience higher retention rates. A report found that 46% of students who feel connected also had a great university experience.

Extracurricular opportunities, such as clubs, sports teams, and campus events, contribute to student engagement and a sense of community, enhancing retention. Faculty and staff engagement, accessibility, and commitment to student success also shape the campus environment. 

The availability of resources like counseling services, health and wellness programs, and career development support can also positively impact student satisfaction and their decision to continue their education at the institution.

5. Personal Factors

Students' motivation and sense of purpose in pursuing their education play a crucial role in their decision to persist. Intrinsic factors such as a passion for learning, career aspirations, and personal goals contribute to higher retention rates. 

A sense of belonging and social integration within the campus community, including friendships, involvement in campus activities, and peer support, can positively impact retention rates. 

Additionally, factors like family support, financial stability, and personal circumstances can influence a student's ability to continue their education. Recognizing and addressing these personal factors through support services, mentorship programs, and targeted interventions can enhance student retention rates.


Understanding the factors that influence retention rates is crucial for colleges and universities. Offering academic support services, addressing financial challenges, creating a welcoming campus environment, and recognizing personal factors all contribute to higher retention rates. By prioritizing these factors, institutions can foster student success, improve retention rates, and enhance the overall educational experience.

 Schedule a demo with Labster to learn more about how you can push the needle on academic performance in STEM and improve retention at your institution by delivering your students a learning advantage.
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