More to the Retention Story: Exploring Second- to Third-Year Retention at 4-Year Colleges and Universities

McCall Pitcher
Professor handshaking with graduates

Higher education focuses on “first-year retention” (measured from fall to fall) as the key metric indicating whether students are on a path toward their degree. This metric appears in federal and state data collections, accreditation reviews, and even accountability and funding frameworks. Although first-year retention is an important indicator of completion at 4-year colleges, it leaves a big gap in our understanding of when students leave.

This brief explores “second- to third- year retention,” tracking students who did enroll during their second year (and therefore are “retained” in official metrics) and examining whether they returned at any point during their third year. This analysis leverages data from the Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP) to generate insights based on 17 four-year institutions. In particular, we find that institutions consistently lost another 10% of their cohort during the second- to third-year retention window, with some differences in which types of students leave during each window. This 10% is important to acknowledge and investigate, as colleges and state systems focus on ways to improve degree completion.