What are Retention Rates Like for Online CollegesOnline colleges and universities have long been a draw for hardworking professionals looking to improve their academic credentials. With courses that have no official meeting time, and the ability to opt for accelerated schedules that speed up how quickly a degree can be earned, these programs have real appeal and they’re a great way to save money, maximize time, and increase upward mobility in the workplace.

Even so, students need to be mindful of the fact that some online universities fail to retain their students. Whether due to higher tuition rates, challenging courses, or other factors, some students simply don’t stick around to complete their degree. Before choosing any online college or university, it might be worth knowing which ones earn the highest marks from students and keep them around until they become graduates.

Online Education Rock Stars: America’s Public Universities

In a study of all online colleges and programs done by U.S. News and World Report in 2010, America’s public universities were easily the biggest success stories when it came to evaluating online program retention rates. The publication found that public schools retained 92 percent of first-time students who were enrolled in a full-time program conducted entirely online. That’s more than double the retention rates of some private universities with similar offerings.

Part-time students were less likely to stick around at America’s public schools, but that was the case across the board. Even private institutions retained fewer part-time students than full-timers. All told, the average retention rate for first-time, part-time students at public universities across the country was measure at 52 percent in 2010. Again, that’s still higher than the competition in private university education services.

Private Schools: A More Complex Picture Concerning Student Retention

Private institutions have long been the leaders in online education, and it was actually private schools that drove the first distance learning craze more than a decade ago. In their longer time on the market, however, these schools haven’t managed to drive up their retention rates to match those found at public institutions. The highest retention rate among all private competitors was measured by U.S. News and World Report at Walden University, where 80 percent of full-time students followed through and earned a degree of their choosing. The highest part-time retention rate went to Liberty University’s online programs, where 49 percent of students followed through and earned a degree.

Rounding out the bottom of the pack in private, online education services for full-time students was Capella University. The institution managed to keep only 20 percent of its students from their first semester through graduation. Grand Canyon University’s 27 percent retention rate for part-time students was the lowest in that category.

National Averages Give Plenty of Reasons for Hope

Online programs vary in their intensity, integrity, and viability, and that’s why retention rates tend to vary between schools. Affordably priced private schools tend to keep more students because prices are lower, local access is a possibility, and name recognition is high. Private schools’ higher tuition and more remote location make them a natural challenge.


Despite the difference between public and private schools, national averages remain quite good. All told, 77 percent of all full-time students in an online program earn their degree regardless of the school’s public or private status. Nationwide part-time retention rates are somewhat lower, at 46 percent overall. Those numbers are expected to rise as online education becomes more common, leading to an even brighter future for degrees earned without ever setting foot in a traditional classroom.

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