Retention slips, graduation increases at Iowa’s public universities

The fall 2021 graduation and retention report revealed regent institution retention rates are down but graduation rates within six years are up.


Ayrton Breckenridge

Iowa Board of Regents President Mike Richards announces Barbara Wilson as the new University of Iowa President at a press conference in the Levitt Center for University Advancement on April 30, 2021.

Kate Perez, News Reporter

Iowa’s public universities’ overall retention rates are down by 1 percent and graduation rates within six years are up by 2 percent since the 2020 cohort, the fall 2021 graduation and retention report revealed.

Retention for the state Board of Regents’ institutions dropped from 88 percent to 87, remaining above the national retention average of 76 percent at both national four-year public and national four-year private nonprofit institutions.

The University of Iowa’s percentage of undergraduate students who return for a second year remained the same at 88 percent, while Iowa State University dropped from 89 to 88 percent, and the University of Northern Iowa dropped from 86 to 81 percent.

The report highlights the UI’s efforts to facilitate retention and timely graduation, including Excelling@Iowa, the First Gen Hawks program, and Learning Assistants among others. These programs focus on decreasing gaps in retention and graduation rates of first-generation, underrepresented minority, and Pell eligible students, the report states.

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Also outlined in the report is the percent of undergraduates who return for a second year by race or ethnicity. The percentages dropped for each ethnicity, with the percentage of white students dropping from 88 to 87, the percentage of racial/ethnic minority students dropping from 87 to 85, and the percentage of underrepresented minority students dropping from 85 to 84.

Regent graduation rates, however, have both improved from 2020. The six-year graduation rate rose from 72 percent to 74 percent, and the four-year graduation rate rose from 52 percent to 54 percent.

“We’ve continued to climb in our four-year graduation rates and [are] showing strong growth there,” said Jason Pontius, the regents’ associate chief academic officer. “The six-year graduation rates for regents are six percentage points above the four-year private national peers and 14 points above the four-year public national peers.”

The UI’s percentage of entering students that graduate within four years has also risen, increasing from 55 to 57 percent. The percentage of entering students that graduate within six years also rose by 2 percent, from 72 percent to 74.

However, gaps in graduation rates by race and ethnicity persist, the report notes. The regents’ four-year undergraduate graduation rate for white students rose from 54 to 56 percent, while the graduation rate for race/ethnic minority students rose from 43 to 45 percent and the rate for underrepresented minority students rose from 42 to 43 percent.

While gaps remain in regent university graduation rates by race and ethnicity, the institutions continue to outperform four-year public university national averages, the report stated.

Regent university graduation rates are also performing well when compared to other Iowa colleges and universities. The regent institutions are the top three producers of bachelor’s degrees in the state of Iowa, with the UI coming in second with 5,586 students earning a bachelor’s degree in 2019-20.

“Our universities continue to be the engines for generating bachelors degrees in the state of Iowa,” Pontius said. “We are way on top and that equates to 62 percent of all bachelors degrees in the state of Iowa are granted by one of our three institutions.”