Is the freshman dropout rate an important stat? It may not be as bad as you think.
The freshman dropout rate is another little fact that no college wishes to discuss, and yet it may be a commentary on all of the previously mentioned selection criteria. A few college guides publish a variation of a freshmen dropout rate (how many freshmen do not return for their sophomore year). Typical freshmen dropout rates range from 2-6 percent for top colleges, which means that 2-6 percent of the freshmen class does not return for their sophomore year. Many of these students do not return for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the college, but some of them transfer to another college because they did not fit into the college community. It’s perfectly normal for a few freshmen (about three percent) to drop out of even the best colleges.
However, a high freshman dropout rate should set off alarms. It may not mean that the college is bad, but it may mean that the college either misrepresents itself to students or that the college is unusual, and students have trouble acclimating. For example, New York University has an unusually high freshmen drop out rate (some years as high as 14 percent). This fact should be reason to pause: why do so many freshmen decline to return to NYU? It’s a very competitive college; surely, those freshmen worked very hard to get admitted. The most likely answer is that NYU is a very unusual college in that it has no campus; it’s a collection of buildings in a densely populated section of this country’s largest metropolis. If you want a traditional college experience, then NYU will let you down. An additional reason could be NYU’s housing, which is notoriously atrocious, and the Manhattan real estate market leaves undergraduates with few options to leave NYU housing. Another example is Cornell, which has the highest freshman dropout rate among the Ivies (about five percent). The reason may be the location: applicants who take a two hour tour during the summer find a pleasant, tranquil campus. However, during the academic year they find themselves hours from any city and surprised by the severity of the winter.
Top colleges do everything possible to keep these rates low, often artificially low. It’s almost impossible to drop out of Harvard or Swarthmore; the administration will do everything possible to maintain your status as a student. While this kind of support is nice, you should note that colleges don’t want their dropout rates to increase. Most colleges look at this from the perspective of graduation rates: the percent of students who graduate within four, five, and six years of matriculating.
So while freshman dropout rates are helpful, they won’t tell you much about the most competitive colleges because those colleges actively manage their dropout rates. This is also why some say the hardest part about Harvard is getting in; once you’re in, they won’t let you leave until you’ve graduated.