Class of 2021 Records Highest Freshman Retention Rate in Seven Years

The GW Hatchet
October 22, 2018

By Mededith Roaten and Sarah Roach

The freshman retention rate is the highest it has been since 2010.

University President Thomas LeBlanc announced at a Board of Trustees meeting Friday that the freshman retention rate for the Class of 2021 stands at 92.9 percent, up from 91.4 percent in 2016 – and the highest since GW recorded a 93.1 percent retention rate eight years ago. Admissions experts said the increase is indicative of officials’ intentional efforts to prioritize the student experience and admit students who are excited about coming to the University.

“We want students who come to GW to graduate,” LeBlanc said. “The first step is to come back as a sophomore.”

Between 2011 and 2013, the freshman retention rate hovered around 90 percent before incrementing to 92.5 percent in 2014. The next academic year, the rate dropped back down to 90.2 percent, according to institutional data.

The University recorded its highest retention rate in at least 11 years in 2009 at 93.1 percent.

LeBlanc, who highlighted student satisfaction in his first year at GW, said officials’ focus on the student experience contributed to a boost in freshmen returning to campus.

In response to student advocacy and as part of LeBlanc’s student experience focus, the University upped the amount of money loaded on to students’ GWorld cards in February amid food insecurity concerns. LeBlanc also oversaw one of the largest overhauls of the Colonial Health Center and student health care plans in April.

The Board of Trustees also voted Friday to allow students to take a free 18th credit starting next fall – a priority student leaders have emphasized for more than two years.

Admissions experts said the jump could show students are incentivized to stay at the University because they think officials are being transparent about the school’s pain points and taking steps to improve.

Steve Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist, said the increased retention rate could mean students recognize that officials are making an intentional effort to improve student satisfaction, which persuades freshmen to stay because they know officials are not overlooking their complaints.

“If there’s an open discussion about that, then your expectations of that are more in line with what is being discussed rather than just a theoretical perspective of what it could be,” he said.

Goodman added that the increase could mean officials are becoming more conscious about admitting students who “wanted to come in the first place, as opposed to wanting to go somewhere else.”

“The more people who come to a school who like the school and want to be at the school tend to do more things because they’re content with where they are,” he said.

Officials said they favored candidates who are more likely to graduate within six years in the Class of 2022. Roughly 2,800 students filled the freshman class this academic year, the largest class size since at least 2008.

William Zumeta, a professor of higher education at the University of Washington, said it is difficult to achieve a two-percentage-point increase, especially considering GW has been in the 90 percent range – which is already “very high” – in recent years.

He added that factors like increasing financial aid and enrolling more “academically prepared” students who are ready to take on a difficult course load may have contributed to a higher retention rate. The Board of Trustees approved a 6 percent bump in financial aid in May, the fifth consecutive year members have authorized an increase.

He said the University would have to survey students to verify if the boost is related to LeBlanc’s increased attention to the student experience.

“Maybe the new president is on to something,” he said. “The new kinds of things he’s doing are having some effect.”

Michael Beseda, the vice provost for strategic enrollment management at the University of San Francisco, said the retention rate provides data to demonstrate if LeBlanc’s efforts have paid off. He added that a two-percentage-point increase is “good” but is not a dramatic change from the previous year.

Beseda said the hike could be a natural fluctuation because of a number of factors, like whether the students in the Class of 2021 are a good match for the University or if GW is meeting students’ expectations of campus life at GW.

“Any improvement is good,” Beseda said. “It’s a sign that more students are satisfied with their experience and staying at the institution they chose.”

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