The Stats That Matter When Choosing a College

When choosing a college, there are so many things to consider. Do they offer your major? How far away is the school from your home? How much does it cost to attend? These criteria are a great place to start when creating your list of potential schools.

As you narrow down your selections, you’ll want to dig deeper and uncover more information that will help you understand if a college will meet your expectations and prepare you for success in your career.

According to Jeff Mavros, director of admissions at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, there are three particularly important statistics to consider when refining your search—retention rate, graduation rate and loan default rate.

Retention Rate

When trying to find the right fit, prospective students look for the academic and out-of-classroom experiences a college offers. But once a student is on campus as a freshman, does the school follow through on those offerings to help students thrive?

Mavros says that a college’s retention rate will give you a good idea about how that college delivers on its promise to its students.

“Students experience an institution academically, socially, financially, and in other ways,” he says. “The retention rate is the percentage of students who are content with those experiences and return the following year. All of these things have to be going in the right direction, or a student may very well transfer to another school.”

A high retention rate reflects an institution that is generally fulfilling its promises to students, and it is a strong indicator that you might have a similar positive experience.

Graduation Rate

Graduation rate represents outcomes. This figure indicates whether first-time students at a college are finding the academic support and resources needed to earn their degree in a timely fashion.

“Keep in mind, there are a number of things that come into play to influence a student's time to degree, and some institutions are more focused than others on keeping students on track and on time toward their long-term goal,” says Mavros.

Students who stay on track toward graduation spend fewer years paying for education and kickstart their career sooner.

Loan Default Rates

Your goal is to attend college, graduate and land a job based on the major that you studied.

“It's incumbent upon us, as institutions, to get each student to wherever he or she wants to be four years later,” says Mavros, who suggests that prospective students consider a school’s loan default rate as a measure of future earnings and career potential. “A low default rate indicates that we haven’t overburdened students with debt and that they have a degree that has value,” he says. “Graduates are employed and able to pay back their commitments on time.”

These three statistics together can give you a more complete picture of the colleges in which you have interest.

“Are students having a good enough experience that they want to come back?” asks Mavros. “Are they graduating on time and then able to be successful with the degree that they've earned? That’s it in a nutshell.”


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