Top 25 Best First-Year Retention Rates: 2018 Rankings

A gold star badge that says "College Raptor Top 25 with Highest 1st Year Retention Rate 2018."Many prospective students look to a college’s first year retention rate as an indicator of a school’s quality. Retention rates show the percentage of the freshman class that remained enrolled for their second academic year—meaning they loved the school enough to continue their higher education there.

For this list, we looked at which colleges had the highest first-year retention rates, and then selected the very best with that percentage. Though these are indeed the Top 25 Best Colleges with the Highest Retention Rate, you’ll see tied ranks—many schools shared the same percentages.

4. 97% University of Michigan–Ann Arbor

A building at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor.

Flickr user Jason Crotty.

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI
  • Student Enrollment: 43,651
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Originally founded in Detroit in 1817, the public university has expanded over the years to a combined area of over 34 million square feet, which includes its central campus in Ann Arbor, regional campuses in Flint and Dearborn, and an extension center in its original home. Its most popular majors are Business, Economics, Psychology, and Computer and Information Sciences.

4. 97% University of California–Los Angeles

A campus building at the University of California--Los Angeles.

Flickr user Andy Dietler.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 41,908
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Political Science is the most popular major at this powerhouse school, followed by Psychology, Economics, and Sociology. Their freshman retention rate is an impressive 96%. UCLA’s alumni have gone on to win numerable awards including: 105 Academy awards, 278 Emmy awards, 3 Pulitzers, and 3 Grammy awards.

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4. 97% Cornell University

A red brick building at Cornell University.

Flickr user J. Maughn.

  • Location: Ithaca, NY
  • Student Enrollment: 21,904
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Cornell University, founded in 1865, is unique among its Ivy League counterparts in that it is a land grant institution. With programs spread across New York City, and even in Qatar, this research university is consistently ranked among the top in the world. Research is a central element to the University and it spent $671 million in 2009 on science and engineering research and development.

4. 97% Vanderbilt University

Students gathering outside at Vanderbilt University.

Flickr user Tom Hart.

  • Location: Nashville, TN
  • Student Enrollment: 12,567
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit

Named in honor of rail and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, the academically rigorous school accepts students with average ACT scores between 32–36 and average SAT scores between 1,430–1,580. Although the university is in the middle of urban Nashville, the campus is a designated national arboretum and has over 300 species of plants.

4. 97% University of California–Berkeley

Bancroft Library at University of California Berkeley.

Flickr user K. Oliver.

  • Location: Berkeley, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 38,189
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Berkeley, the result of an 1868 merger of the private College of California and the public Agricultural, Mining and Mechanical Arts college, is the oldest research university in the UC system. The school’s faculty, alumni and researchers make up an impressive group which includes Nobel laureates, Academy Award winners and Olympic gold medalists.

4. 97% Duke University

Perkins Library at Duke University.

Flickr user Chris Lawrence.

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Student Enrollment: 15,984
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Of Duke’s nearly 16,000 students, the majority of them are in the graduate school. Well over 31,000 applications are sent in to this university every year, though only about 11% or so are accepted. Duke has a 7:1 student to faculty ratio and a 97% first year retention rate. Lacrosse, football, and soccer are popular sports on campus.

4. 97% Pomona College

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,663
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

With a small class size and a 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio, Pomona College puts an emphasis on community. The top 5 most popular majors on this campus are: Economics, Mathematics, Biology/Biological Sciences, Neuroscience, and Computer Science. Academics are priority, with the average ACT scores ranging between 30-34 and SAT 1,350-1,520.

4. 97% Columbia University in the City of New York

College Walk and Butler Library at Columbia University.

Flickr user Andreas Komodromos.

  • Location: New York City, NY
  • Student Enrollment: 28,086
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

There are a host of famous and influential alumni that have graduated from this university, including: 3 U.S. Presidents, 9 Supreme Court Justices, and 123 Pulitzer Prize winners. Incoming freshman score an average of 31–35 on the ACT and 1,380–1,570 on the SAT. Nearly 37,000 applications are sent to this school annually.

4. 97% Williams College

Griffin Hall at Williams College.

Flickr user Peter Rintels.

  • Location: Williamstown, MA
  • Student Enrollment: 2,171
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

As one of the oldest colleges in the U.S., founded in 1793, Williams College offers 44 undergraduate and two graduate majors. It is consistently ranked as one of the top colleges in the country and meets 100% of admitted students’ financial need. Their Purple Cow mascot supports their athletic teams which are called the Ephs.  

4. 97% Harvard University

Memorial Hall building at Harvard University.

Flickr user Paul Geffen.

  • Location: Cambridge, MA
  • Student Enrollment: 29,652
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Easily one of the most recognizable universities, Harvard is actually the oldest institute of higher learning in the country. It’s latin motto of “Veritas” means truth—a fitting motto for a university well-known for its Law, Political Science, and Social Science programs. Harvard also boasts an impressive graduation rate, at 87% for four years, and 97% for six.

3. 98% Harvey Mudd College

A building at Harvey Mudd with a sign of the college's name in front of it.

Flickr user CampusGrotto.

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 800
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4 year or above

Founded in 1955, Harvey Mudd’s mission is to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians within a liberal arts construct. The integration of research opportunities are central to their educational mission as can been seen through their world-renowned Clinic Program. As a member of the contiguous Claremont Colleges, it shares campus facilities with five other undergraduate institutions and two graduate schools.  

3. 98% Brown University

Front gates of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Flickr user thurdl01.

  • Location: Providence, RI
  • Student Enrollment: 9,458
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4 year or above

This well-known university was the first school in the Ivy League. It is the 7th oldest college in the country, and the first to admit students regardless of their religious affiliation. Economics, Biology, Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Applied Mathematics are the most common majors on this campus.

3. 98% Swarthmore College

Swarthmore College campus building surrounded by trees.

Flickr user Simon.

  • Location: Swarthmore, PA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,581
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore was one of the first coeducational schools in the U.S. It has an 89% four year graduation rate and a student-to-faculty ratio of 8:1. Their school colors are garnet and grey, and their mascot is named Phineas the Phoenix. Most of Swarthmore’s students come from California, Pennsylvania, and New York.

3. 98% Northwestern University

A building at Northwestern University covered trees.

Flickr user jojolae.

  • Location: Evanston, IL
  • Student Enrollment: 21,655
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Although NU is based in Evanston along the shores of Lake Michigan, the school has two other campuses in Chicago and Doha, Qatar as well as additional facilities in Washington D.C. and San Francisco. The Northwestern Wildcats also compete in 19 varsity sports at the NCAA Division I level as part of the Big Ten Conference.

3. 98% University of Notre Dame

Golden Dome at University of Notre Dame.

Flickr user Dan Dzurisin.

  • Location: Notre Dame, IN
  • Student Enrollment: 12,292
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded in 1842 by a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the University of Notre Dame is a widely recognized catholic research university. The most popular majors on campus are Finance, Accounting, and Marketing. With 80% of their students living on campus, most students flock to the athletic stadiums to cheer on their Fighting Irish sporting the famous gold and blue uniforms.  

3. 98% The United States Naval Academy

Students walking outside at the United States Naval Academy.

Flickr user Butch Dalisay.

  • Location: Annapolis, MD
  • Student Enrollment: 4,525
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Built atop the former Fort Severn, the United States Naval Academy is 33 miles away from Washington D.C. They have an impressive 98% first-year retention rate and an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. “Anchors Aweigh” is their well-known fight song played at sporting events, where they show off the colors navy blue and gold.

3. 98% University of Pennsylvania

College Hall at the University of Pennsylvania.

Flickr user Rob Pettengill.

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Student Enrollment: 24,876
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

UPenn’s coat of arms was specifically designed to mirror Benjamin Franklin’s. It features a dolphin and two books. The motto “Leges sine moribus vanae” means “Laws without morals are useless.” Located in the City of Brotherly Love, this university receives well over 37,000 applications each year and accepts about 3,800.

3. 98% Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Ray and Maria Stata Center.

Flickr user Stacey Kizer.

  • Location: Cambridge, MA
  • Student Enrollment: 11,311
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This institute was technically founded in 1861, but did not open to students until 1865 due to the start of the Civil War. Nowadays, however, MIT is a worldwide leader in physical sciences, engineering, economics, biology, and much more. They have cardinal red and silver grey as their official school colors.

3. 98% Stanford University

Hoover Tower at Stanford University.

Flickr user Michael Estigoy.

  • Location: Stanford, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 16,980
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Stanford’s german motto—Die Luft der Freiheit weht—stands for “The wind of freedom blows.” For this prestigious school, the average ACT score is between 31 and a perfect 36, for the SAT between 1,390 and 1,580. Given its proximity to Silicon Valley, it comes as no surprise that the most popular major on campus is Computer Science.

3. 98% California Institute of Technology

The California Institute of Technology campus' iconic gene pool fountain.

Flickr user Eric Chan

  • Location: Pasadena, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 2,255
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

In addition to their reputation as academic brainiacs, the students at this institute are notorious pranksters. They once even changed the Hollywood sign to read “CalTech.” Orange and white are the school colors, and their mascot is a beaver—an homage to nature’s best engineer. 34 Nobel prize winners have graduated from CalTech.

3. 98% Princeton University

East Pyne Hall at Princeton University.

Flickr user Kah-Wai Lin

  • Location: Princeton, NJ
  • Student Enrollment: 8,143
  • College Type: Private, not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded in 1746, this prestigious university didn’t earn the name Princeton until 1896—originally called the College of New Jersey. Of the nearly 30,000 applications that were sent in last year, only 1,948 were selected, giving Princeton an acceptance rate of 7.1%. Due to its excellent financial aid program, 83% of recent students graduated without any debt.

2. 99% Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

Students participating in an event at Franklin W Olin College.

Flickr user Sean Munson

  • Location: Needham, MA
  • Student Enrollment: 370
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This college offers three majors: Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical / Electronics Engineering. Their phoenix mascot is unofficially named Frank, and represents the school’s willingness to change itself and adapt. Olin only has two competitive sports on campus: soccer and ultimate frisbee.

2. 99% University of Chicago

University of Chicago campus quad in early spring.

Flickr user Don Burkett

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Student Enrollment: 15,391
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

UChicago has graduated quite a number of recognizable names, including: Roger Ebert, Carl Sagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Indiana Jones (albeit fictionally). Their maroon coat of arms features a phoenix rising towards the words “Crescat Scientia; vita excolatur”—Let knowledge grow from more and more; and so be human life enriched.

2. 99% Yale University

Alley at Yale University.

Flickr user Francisco Anzola

  • Location: New Haven, CT
  • Student Enrollment: 12,385
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Yale University receives over 30,000 each year, and is well-known for being highly selective. In 1861, Yale awarded the country’s first ever Ph.D. Students sport the unique color “Yale Blue” at Bulldogs games. Among its notable alumni are 5 U.S. Presidents, 19 Supreme Court Justices, 20 living billionaires, and 57 Nobel laureates.

1. 100% San Francisco Conservatory of Music

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music building at dusk.

Wikimedia Commons user Carlin Ma.

  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 379
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded in 1917 with three pianos, four studios, two blackboards and 40 students, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has grown into an elite music school with about 400 undergraduate and graduate students. To go along with its prestigious music education programs, the institution offers community enrichment programs and world-class performances.

About our methodology

Colleges are ranked based on a combination of factors, including graduation rates, campus diversity, endowment per student, and other data as reported via the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the most recently-available enrollment year. Some colleges may have been excluded from rankings based on certain criteria, including specialization and classification. Learn about our full methodology.

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