Putting Retention & Completion Rates into Comparative Context


While it may be difficult to predict with accuracy the likelihood of any given student actually graduating from an institution, that institution’s graduation rate is among the most predictable of metrics given its strong correlation with other institutional attributes. Using predicted retention and completion rates to evaluate institutional outcomes is prerequisite to setting appropriate goals for institutional improvement.

Observed vs. Predicted Six-Year Graduation Rates for Four-Year Private and Public Colleges and Universities
comparative retention and completion rates data chart


Taking a broad range of institutional attributes from public domain sources (e.g. IPEDS), a predicted graduation rate is computed and then compared to the actual or observed graduation rate for each institution. This chart plots each private (yellow) and public (blue) institution as a bubble located on two dimensions: the predicted six-year graduation rate on the x axis and the observed rate on the y axis, with a red regression line inserted showing the statistical relationship, which is a correlation with an R2 = .82. A red dot shows this particular institution’s location, which illustrates that its actual graduation rate is below what would be predicted for an institution with its particular profile.


Retention strategy often begins with an assessment of an institution’s performance compared to

peer institutions. But that assessment can and should be framed by first exploring the congruence of an institution’s actual retention and graduation rates with what would be predicted from a wide array of metrics regarding its academic and financial profile and its overall market position. Institutions which underperform predicted rates immediately have an empirical basis for setting goals for improvement.