Why Transform the First Two Years of College?

Drew Koch pictured in front of a stone wall in a light blue shirt and dark blue suit jacketBecause That’s Where the Highest Levels of Attrition and Inequitable Student Performance Gaps Are

Essay by Andrew K. Koch, Ph.D., CEO, Gardner Institute

March 18, 2024

Willie Sutton was a colorful character. His impeccable attire and charismatic demeanor made him stand out, even as he committed daring bank robberies. Sutton’s notoriety extended beyond his criminal exploits; his wit and humor became as legendary as his heists. When questioned by FBI interrogators about why he robbed banks, Sutton was alleged to quip, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Sutton’s words harbor a deeper truth applicable to realms far beyond the world of crime. Just as banks hold substantial wealth, the first two years of college harbor immense potential for students. However, these years also witness staggering attrition rates and disparities in educational outcomes. Studies conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) and Dr. Brent Drake from the Gardner Institute shed light on both the student success problems and possibilities in the first two college years.

In their July 2022 Yearly Success and Progress Rates report, the NSC analyzed the trajectory of 2.3 million students who commenced college in fall 2015. Among the full-time student cohort, comprising 82% of the study’s participants, alarming trends emerged. Six years after starting college, 67.4% of full-time students had obtained a credential, while nearly a quarter left higher education all together. That loss amounts to almost 460,000 individuals from this single cohort. Most concerning was the revelation that a significant majority of the attrition, approximately 73.9%, occurred within or immediately after the first two years of college.

These statistics underscore the importance of addressing not only the first but also the second college year. Focusing on the first college year, while necessary, is not enough. Postsecondary educators must adopt a holistic approach, whereby they examine and address issues in both years., collectively and respectively, to fulfill the promise of higher education for hundreds of thousands of students annually.

While the NSC study provides valuable insights, it lacks a disaggregated analysis of student data by race/ethnicity or other demographics. Fortunately, Dr. Brent Drake’s study, leveraging data from thirty-three institutions collaborating with the Gardner Institute, offers deeper insights into demographic disparities in attrition rates.

Factoring data for over 300,000 unique students, the findings, which are summarized in the table below, reveal that on average 40.5% of all students do not return to the institution at which they started college during or after the first two years of college. Further there are alarming discrepancies, particularly for students of color as well as Pell Grant recipients and first-generation students, all of whom exhibit significantly higher attrition rates compared to the overall average.

Table 1. Aggregate and Disaggregated Rates of Attrition During the First Two College Years*



All Students Aggregate

African American

Amer. Ind. / Alaska Native

Hispanic / Latinx

Native Hawaiian / Pac. Isl.


Pell Grant



1st Year Attrition









2nd Year Attrition









Total Attrition First Two Years









Total Attrition Over Six Years









% of Overall Attrition Occurring During First Two Years









* Source: Data from 33 institutions participating in the Gardner Institute retention redesign process.

But even when graduation and retention rates are higher, the amount of attrition that occurs by racial, socioeconomic (Pell), and first-generation status during the foundational postsecondary experience are roughly similar to the aggregate (76.0%) for all students. For example, retention and graduation rates are higher for White students. But the proportion of attrition that occurs during the first two years of college for White students (76.6%) is roughly equivalent to the proportion of attrition that occurs for students of color.

This doesn’t ignore the reality of lower retention and graduation rates among students of color and Pell grant recipients. Rather, it emphasizes the critical need to address attrition early in the college experience. While disparities persist across racial and socioeconomic lines, the shared truth is that success or failure during the foundational postsecondary years affects students of all demographics. Simply put, the first two years are crucial for everyone. Thus, investing in student success during this period aligns with both the higher education completion agenda and equity imperative.

Recognizing the urgency of this issue, the Gardner Institute has initiated a national effort focused on Transforming the Foundational Postsecondary Experience with support from five different national foundations as well as participating institutions. You can learn more about that effort and how your institution can get involved in this recent Inside Higher Ed story.

Whether institutions decide to work with the Gardner Institute or not, the findings of these studies strongly suggest that most if not all colleges and universities must redouble efforts to improve student success during the foundational postsecondary experience. Because, after all, and with a nod to Willie Sutton, that’s where the attrition and inequitable performance gaps are.

Learn about Transforming The Foundational Postsecondary Experience™

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