Retention Benchmarking Using Free Online Tools - Monday Musings

By Kathy Kurz on Jan 30, 2012

Are your retention goals based upon hopes and aspirations, or retention data?

Tags: retention

Retention is one of the hardest “needles” to move. Yet colleges and universities often set retention targets based on hopes and aspirations rather than a realistic assessment of what is likely to be possible based on both the institution’s history and external benchmarking.

One tool that can be very helpful in setting realistic retention goals is The Education Trust’s College Results Online Advanced Search site, which can be found at Using this tool, you can identify other institutions that resemble yours in terms of some key factors that often influence retention such as institutional size and type; median SATs and selectivity; percent receiving Pell Grants; percent enrolled part-time; etc. As can be seen in the table below, this type of search enables you to compare your graduation rates to those at institutions enrolling students that resemble yours on at least some measures. (Note: the website offers the option of exporting your search results to an excel spreadsheet! Only some of the variables provided by the search are listed in the sample tables below.)

Sample retention benchmark as a spreadsheet.

Alternatively, you can search for institutions with graduation rates similar to yours in order to understand where they may differ from you on a variety of measures. (See the sample search results in the table below, where the search criteria were graduation rate and Carnegie Classification.)

A sample of viewing graduation rates in an Excel spreadsheet.

The database used by this tool comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Graduation Rate Survey. Consequently, the graduation rates displayed represent the percent of first-time, full-time freshmen who earned a bachelor’s degree at their initial institution within six years.

Another benchmarking tool is available from the Higher Education Research Institute. They now offer an expected graduation rate calculator available at the following link: Their basic calculator asks for information on gender balance, ethnic diversity, mean SAT or ACT scores, and high school grades in order to calculate expected 4-,5-, and 6-year degree completion rates for a single student or entire cohort of students at an institution.

A more advanced calculator is also available using data from the CIRP Freshman Survey to schools that participated in the survey in 2004 and 2010. The data behind the calculator comes from the responses of first-time, full-time students at four-year institutions that participated in the 2004 CIRP Freshman Survey and the National Student Clearinghouse. More can be learned about the methodology behind the calculator by reading HERI’s white paper on the topic, which can be found at the following link:

While there are certainly many other factors that should be considered when establishing retention goals, including of course analysis of institutional retention and graduation rate trends by subpopulation and the development of predictive retention models using historical data, the benchmarking data available from these online tools can help put your current and desired retention rates in perspective.

Kathy KurzAbout the author: Vice President Kathy Kurz's special area of expertise is in developing strategic financial aid and retention programs, designed to enhance enrollment and net tuition revenue results. A former Associate Vice President at the University of Rochester and Director of Financial Aid at Earlham College, she pays special attention to ensuring that the solutions recommended are practical, detailed, and implementable.

Kathy contributes regularly to University Business, authored a chapter entitled The Changing Role of Financial Aid and Enrollment Management in New Directions for Student Services, a Jossey-Bass publication, and speaks at national conferences and seminars such as NACUBO, Academic Impressions, and CIC.

Connect with Kathy on LinkedIn.

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