Colleges With the Highest Freshman Retention Rates

Kelsey Sheehy

The U.S. News Short List, separate from our overall rankings, is a regular series that magnifies individual data points in hopes of providing students and parents a way to find which undergraduate or graduate programs excel or have room to grow in specific areas. Be sure to explore The Short List: College and The Short List: Grad School to find data that matters to you in your college or grad school search.

Results from college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT suggest that most high school graduates are not ready for college. It is not surprising, then, that as many as 1 in 3 college freshmen leave after their first year.

Some transfer to another college. Others drop out entirely. Their reasons vary from money troubles or academic issues to homesickness or a change in their major.

[Read these 10 tips for college freshmen.]

Freshman retention rates - the percentage of full-time, first-year students who return the following year - can be a telling statistic for prospective students.

A low rate could signal unhappy students and insufficient support, such as tutoring centers, for those struggling. It could also mean the school serves a less-traditional student body. An especially high retention rate often means the school enrolls a driven, high-achieving set of students.

Columbia University and Yale University, for example, both retained 99 percent of their freshman classes between 2008 and 2011. These Ivy League schools tied for the top spot on this year's list of schools with the highest average freshman retention rate.

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On average, 98 percent of freshmen at these schools stuck around for sophomore year, compared with the national average of 75 percent, according to data reported by 1,365 ranked colleges and universities in an annual U.S. News survey.

All schools on this list ranked in the top 20 of their respective ranking category in the 2014 Best Colleges rankings and accepted an average of just 11.5 percent of their applicants in fall 2012.

At the other end of the spectrum, Patten University in California reported a freshman retention rate of just 20 percent between 2010 and 2011. At Ashford University, a for-profit school, only 42 percent of first-year students stayed for their second year during that time frame. Neither school requires students to take the ACT or SAT, and Ashford accepts 90 percent of applicants.

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Multiple ties resulted in 14 schools qualifying for the top 10 list. Six schools fell within a half percentage point of making the list, including Carleton College in Minnesota and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fifty-five schools reported a retention rate of at least 95 percent.

Below are the schools with the highest average freshman retention rates, based on data covering first-year students entering college between fall 2008 and fall 2011. Schools that were designated by U.S. News as Unranked were not considered for this report. U.S. News did not calculate a numerical ranking for Unranked programs because the program did not meet certain criteria that U.S. News requires to be numerically ranked.

School name (state) Average freshman retention rate (2008-2011) U.S. News rank and category
Columbia University (NY) 99% 4, National Universities
Yale University (CT) 99% 3, National Universities
University of Chicago 98.5% 5, National Universities
Amherst College (MA) 98% 2, National Liberal Arts Colleges
Princeton University (NJ) 98% 1, National Universities
Stanford University (CA) 98% 5, National Universities
Dartmouth College (NH) 97.8% 10, National Universities
Harvey Mudd College (CA) 97.8% 16, National Liberal Arts Colleges
University of Pennsylvania 97.8% 7, National Universities
Brown University (RI) 97.5% 14, National Universities
California Institute of Technology 97.5% 10, National Universities
Harvard University (MA) 97.5% 2, National Universities
Pomona College (CA) 97.5% 4, National Liberal Arts Colleges
University of Notre Dame (IN) 97.5% 18, National Universities

Don't see your school? Access the U.S. News College Compass to find retention rates, complete rankings and much more. School officials can access historical data and rankings, including of peer institutions, via U.S. News Academic Insights.

U.S. News surveyed nearly 1,800 colleges and universities for our 2013 survey of undergraduate programs. Schools self-reported a myriad of data regarding their academic programs and the makeup of their student body, among other areas, making U.S. News's data the most accurate and detailed collection of college facts and figures of its kind. While U.S. News uses much of this survey data to rank schools for our annual Best Colleges rankings, the data can also be useful when examined on a smaller scale. U.S. News will now produce lists of data, separate from the overall rankings, meant to provide students and parents a means to find which schools excel, or have room to grow, in specific areas that are important to them. While the data come from the schools themselves, these lists are not related to, and have no influence over, U.S. News's rankings of Best Colleges or Best Graduate Schools. The retention rate data above are correct as of Nov. 26, 2013.