How Finances, Academics Play a Part in Poor Retention Rates

Photo Courtesy via Adobe Stock Although ESU's freshman retention rates are at a 70 percent, numbers have dropped within the last ten years.

Colin O’Leary 

Staff Writer 

When colleges and universities evaluate the success of their students, often the focus is on graduation rates, but there is another important indicator of student success: the retention rate.

According to the Free Application for Federal Student (FAFSA) website, the retention rate is defined as the percentage of a school’s first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year.

As opposed to the graduation rate which is the percentage of a school’s first-time, first-year undergraduate students who complete their program within 150% of the published time for the program.

Both rates can give insight into how a college or university is performing and how students are faring.

ESU lists its freshman retention rate at 70 percent, which is in line with the national average, but it has decreased over the past decade.

The question is why do some colleges and universities have such low retention rates? 

Similarly, why has the retention rate dropped at some colleges and universities like ESU and how does this add up with the increase of student loan debt across the country?

According to William Cheetham, the Interim Vice President of Enrollment Management at ESU, one of the factors in poor retention rates is financial issues.

According to, student loan debt soared from $260 billion in 2004 to $1.4 trillion in 2017. 

“I think too many times students and families get so excited about where they want to go that they overlook the cost,” Cheetham said.

It’s difficult for a student to return to a university if they can’t pay the tuition bill. According to Cheetham, when students first apply and then attend, they believe that they can make it work, but when the math doesn’t work, they have to change course.

“I think the process for many families doesn’t start soon enough as far as trying to determine the right school,” said Cheetham.

There are times when students think that they have found the right school, but financially they take on too much debt or altogether can’t afford it.

In particular, most have to weigh student loan debt. Does it make sense to continue at a school that makes a student’s debt worse than it needs to be?

Of course, there are other reasons besides financial reasons for low or decreasing retention rates.

Cheetham believes that another factor is that a college or university is a bad fit, but the student doesn’t realize it at the time.

“That can be a number of things [like] change of major, could be not the right social fit as far as athletics,” he said.

When a university is a bad fit for a student like Cheetham suggests, it can mess up the student loan debt even more because credits may not transfer, or the school that the student is currently attending may not have the change of major they want.

“If you end up going to a school for a year or two years, and it’s not the right school, the odds of having the right credits to the right school exactly and not have to add another year to your education are probably very slim,” he said.

Academics also play a part in retention rates. There are times when students aren’t prepared for the academic rigor, and they might have to defer their studies. Cheetham says that ESU knows that it’s one of the problems, but faculty are working to help it.

“We have a very active faculty right now. The faculty and provost especially are very concerned on the academic side of making sure that when we bring students to the college, we provide them the appropriate support for them, and that’s academic support, mental support, financial support,” he said.

Right now, ESU is looking into the idea of having a network of coaches and advisors to help with the problem of retention. It will be another resource for students to make sure they can be as successful as they want to be.

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