Two-year colleges raise retention rates

More community college students are making it to their second year, according to ACT, Inc. data. But college retention rates — the percentage of first-year, full-time students who return to the same institution for their second year of college — are declining at private four-year colleges.

Some 56 percent of students at public two-year colleges return for the second year, a record high. The retention rate at private four-year colleges has dropped to 72 percent; for the first time ever, that’s lower than the rate at public four-year schools, which is 74 percent.

The study doesn’t track students who enroll at a different institution after their first year.  Increased “swirling” — moving from one school to another — may account for the results.

In addition, the high costs of private colleges may be too much for students to handle, says ACT analyst Wes Habley.

“With many jobs gone and fewer new jobs available, high school graduates and newly unemployed workers may be seeking the fastest, least expensive route to gainful employment,” said Habley. “Two-year colleges tend to be less costly than four-year schools and offer programs that provide entry into specific jobs. Those factors may increase students’ motivation and incentive to come back for their second year.”

Two-year public colleges, according to Habley, also tend to be more responsive to the marketplace than four-year institutions.

“Community colleges are typically more driven by local economic factors and employment needs than are four-year colleges and universities,” he said. “As a result, students can often see a more direct link from the program to a job.”

According to ACT’s 2010 report, What Works in Student Retention, colleges are relying more on remedial classes, study groups and tutoring and less on academic advising and first-year transition programs to help students succeed.

The long-term trend is clear, said Habley. “Many students still enter college unprepared to succeed, and retention and completion rates haven’t changed a lot over the years.”