Increasing Retention in Postsecondary Education

Only one-third of students leave high school minimally prepared for college. Consequently, developmental education courses are an important component of student retention efforts. This brief addresses policy implications of retention programs.

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A degree gap—the difference between degrees awarded and the number of degrees needed to compete in the world economy—exists between the U.S. and other countries.

  • The U.S. is one of only two countries where the older generation is more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the younger generation.1
  • The U.S. was the only one of 23 countries that showed no increase in its postsecondary graduation rates between 2000 and 2005, according to one study.2
  • Between 1985 and 2000, the number of mathematics degrees awarded in the U.S. declined by 30 percent, even as the demand for technically trained workers reached an all-time high.3
  • The degree gap will reach nearly 16 million degrees by 2025. In order to avoid a degree gap, the U.S. needs to increase degree production by 37 percent each year during that time period.4

The problem is not one of too few students entering college as much as it is too many students dropping out before obtaining degrees.

  • More than 1 million full-time undergraduate students begin studying at four-year colleges and universities each year. Fewer than four in 10 graduate within four years and barely six in 10 earn bachelor’s degrees within six years.5
  • Fewer than half of students in community colleges obtain associate degrees within four years.5
  • Racial and ethnic disparities exist in college completion rates. Approximately onethird of white students earn bachelor’s degrees by age 25, compared to 18 percent of African-Americans and 10 percent of Hispanics.6

Developmental education is the most common policy tool to help underprepared students succeed in college.

  • Only one-third of students leave high school minimally prepared for college.7
  • Nearly all public two-year colleges offer developmental courses in mathematics, writing and/or reading. Eighty percent of public four-year colleges offer these courses.8
  • Forty percent of all undergraduates complete at least one developmental course.9
  • One study found that students who did not participate in a developmental mathprogram were four times more likely to drop out of college during their first three years compared to equivalent students who did participate in the developmental program.10

  Download the Excel Version of the Table:  "Higher Education and Retention Rates, 2006"


1 The Education Trust. (2007).
2 Postsecondary Education Opportunity. (2007, April). Bachelor’s Degree Attainment of Young Adults in Industrial Democracies 1996 to 2004.
3 National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2000-2001 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2001).
4 Lumina Foundation for Education. "Hitting Home: Quality, Cost, and Access Challenges Confronting Higher Education Today. Making Opportunity Affordable."  March 2007. 
5 U.S. Census Bureau. "Educational Attainment in the United States", 2007.
6 The Mortenson Research Seminar on Public Policy Analysis of Opportunity for Postsecondary Education , “Higher Education Equity Indices by Race/Ethnicity
and Gender, 1940-2000,” Postsecondary Education Opportunity 110 (2002) 3.
7 Greene, Jay P and Gregg Forster. “Public high school graduation and college readiness rates in the United States.” Center for Civic Innovation. (2003).
8 U.S. Department of Education. “Remedial education at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in fall 2000.” (2003).
9 Attewell, P., Lavin, D., Domina, T., & Levey, T. (2006). New evidence on college remediation. The Journal of Higher Education,77, 886-924.
10 Lesik, Sally A., Evaluating developmental education programs in higher education. Association for the Study of Higher Education (2008).

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