First-Year Performance and Retention/
Completion Rates


Retention and graduation rates are powerfully dependent upon students’ first-year academic performance, a fact often overlooked when looking only at persistence rates (the percent of students returning for the second year) rather than rates of performance and progress (making one year’s progress toward degree completion in terms of grades and credits earned).

Performance, Retention & Graduation by Academic Preparation and Year 1 Income
first-year performance and retention rates data chart


HCRC approaches longitudinal retention analysis by including students’ first-year academic performance (in red) as an outcome metric of equal importance as second-year retention rates (in blue) and the four-, five- and six-year graduation rates (in green). This chart shows those metrics for an institution arrayed by two layered student attributes over multiple cohorts: students’ level of academic preparation or profile at the time of admission (high, medium and low) and then within each of those the level of parental adjusted gross income at the time the student enrolls (high, medium and low). Therefore, the bottom row shows outcomes for students with the lowest academic profile and lowest parent income while the top row shows metrics for students of highest academic profile and highest parental income. In comparing the enrollment outcomes of various groups of students, differences in long-term graduation rates more clearly parallel levels of first-year performance than persistence into the second year.


Effective retention strategy often begins with identifying the specific factors that most significantly account statistically for variance in persistence or graduation rates. HCRC research generally demonstrates, however, that academic performance in the first year is not only the most powerful predictor of timely degree completion but is also more predictable than retention rates from pre-enrollment student attributes. A focus on first-year performance strengthens the predictive analyses colleges can use for early identification of students who may have greater likelihood of attrition. More importantly, a focus on improving first-year performance immediately elevates the value in identifying the particular courses and curricula which create barriers to student performance and progress – and addressing those barriers as part of a comprehensive retention and student success strategy.