Apr 23, 2010

Freshman Retention turns out to be Key to the ‘100 Happiest Colleges’

My son was fortunate enough to be admitted to two wonderful colleges of equal academic distinction. One was located in the northeast, and the other in northern California. As he summed it up, we were looking at “snow and ice or palm trees and breezes.” He opted for the latter.

So it’s not surprising to me that weather and hours of sunlight would be key factors in the Daily Beast’s recent review of the '100 Happiest Colleges,' and that six of the top ten would be located in sunny California. But if weather counts, how did Harvard and Yale rank so highly—also in the top ten?

It turns out that 71 of the top 75 “happiest” colleges had freshman retention rates of at least 90 percent (the other four schools were in very warm and sunny places). While several variables figured into the equation, only one factor appeared relatively consistent among top scorers—freshman retention or the percent of first year students who return for a second year at the same institution.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of freshman retention in the college selection process. Often overlooked in favor of more familiar ranking information, freshman retention rates speak volumes about institutional ability to engage students. And absent other considerations, unhappy students generally don’t tend to stick around.

You can find freshman retention rates by school at the federal College Navigator. Type in any institution and follow the links to retention and graduation rates. If the number is low, feel free to ask hard questions and see what the school is doing to improve.

But back to the Daily Beast’s '100 Happiest Colleges.' While the ranking is more curiosity than meaningful assessment, the criteria used to evaluate institutions might be relevant to your college search:

• Campus housing (Source: College Prowler)
• Nightlife (College Prowler)
• Graduate indebtedness (U.S. News & World Report)
• Freshman retention rate (U.S. News & World Report)
• Campus dining (College Prowler)
• Number of student clubs and organizations (U.S. News & World Report)
• Daylight hours that are sunny (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration)

Several local colleges and universities scored well in these categories and made it onto the top 100 list including the University of Richmond (45), UVa (48), the College of William and Mary (51), Washington and Lee University (59), Johns Hopkins (71), Virginia Tech (73), and Georgetown (84). Note that all of these schools have freshman retention rates of 90 percent or more.

To view the entire list of the “100 Happiest Colleges,” go to the Daily Beast website.

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