The Arizona Desert Lamp

Retention and Admissions: A bit of discretion goes a long way

Posted in Campus, Education Policy by Evan Lisull on 21 September 2009

Freshman retention rate – the rate at which freshman return to the university for their second year – is an important issue for the UA administration, and for good reason. The UA has consistently finished at the bottom of AAU public universities since 1996; and in spite of a litany of programs launched in an attempt to improve its standing, Arizona has simply vacillated from 76 to 78 percent. In effect, one out of every four freshman that enrolls at the UA drops out by their second-year.

In spite of such a historical trend, administrators up to this point have yet to look at underlying factors that may contribute to its persistence. Instead, even more new programs are offered, including festival-style concerts.

Below is a chart plotting the acceptance rate against the retention rate of the 35 AAU public universities, for the year 2007  (sources: retention and acceptance data):

Retention v. Acceptance Rate

There is a inverse trend (with a solid r-squared value) between acceptance rate and retention rate; in other words, the more kids you let in, the more leave. Intuitively, this seems obvious, and the trend would no doubt be starker with the addition of more extreme schools like Harvard and Phoenix. At Harvard, the extremely low acceptance rate guarantees that each and every student is heavily vetted, and only admitted after the school is absolutely sure of success. The type of student who is able to jump through all the hoops and ladders necessary to end up at Cambridge is not the sort of student to call it quits after a year, or four years, or even twenty years. In contrast, the “come on down!” admission approach of Phoenix is one of high turnover; with no vetting, students who are in no way ready for the college experience (even an online one) sign up anyways. (However, it should be pointed out that while Phoenix U. has an astonishingly low 28 percent retention rate, this is not true with all online colleges – Arizona’s own Grand Canyon University has a 69 percent retention, right up there with the UA).

The UA, with its 78 percent retention rate and its 88 percent acceptance, is the lowest point on the graph. While there are many factors that go into retention (which will get their own graphs soon, d.v.), one of the best things the UA could do to improve the quality of its students is, quite simply, to raise standards and admit less of them. Instead, the school loudly trumpets its “record-breaking” 7,000 person class, ignoring the fact that if current trends hold, 1,500 of them won’t be back next fall.


4 Responses

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  1. Laura Donovan said, on 21 September 2009 at 7:25 pm

    The admissions office should focus on keeping admitted students in school. Since when did UA start taking 88% of applicants? When we were admitted, UA only accepted 80%. A high acceptance rate isn’t bad, but UA can work on the retention rate.

  2. Matthew Totlis said, on 22 September 2009 at 7:51 am

    Actually, Retention (a department w/i Student Affairs) is responsible for retention and they are currently piloting a new program that they hope (fingers crossed) will improve the retention rate. The idea is to use the Centennial classes as a jumping off point. It looks like classes there are going to be the norm for all freshman in the next few years so Retention is taking a look at doing a cohort (no relation to Eller Cohort) program that will hire students in a hyper-“preceptor” role. These students will serve as a point of contact for freshman and transfer students in their first year providing the the new students with a “go to” while they adjust. I can’t say I have any more info than that but I hope it works.

  3. Renee Schafer Horton said, on 22 September 2009 at 9:02 am

    Great post Evan.

  4. REB said, on 22 September 2009 at 11:14 am

    The comment from Matthew Totlis is interesting and distressing. If the idea is to use the Centennial Hall classes as a jumping off point for increasing retention then there needs to be a lot of revision work. At least one of the Centennial Hall classes is in chaos with classroom management type issues and there are constant problems with the technology. One wonders if these classes are really saving any money and if other professors will step forward to teach these classes after the experiences of this year.

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