Overall Retention, Persistence Rates Rise Slightly

Updated Apr 24, 2015

042415_CampusThe persistence rate of college students has reached its highest point since 2010, when it began a four-year decline, according to a new “snapshot” report of persistence and retention rates released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The overall persistence rate for students who entered college in fall 2013 was 69.6—or one percentage point higher than that of students who entered college in fall 2012. Meanwhile the retention rate increased by 1.1 percentage points to 59.3 percent, the report found.

The persistence rate is the rate at which students return to any college during their second fall term, and the retention rate is the rate at which they return to the same college during their second fall term.

The NSC analysis found that increases in persistence rates for students who started college full-time were higher than for students who started college part-time—increases of 1.2 percentage points versus 0.2 percentage points, respectively.

While each institutional sector saw similar increases in persistence rates, the largest increase—0.8 percentage points—took place at two-year public institutions, taking the percentage rate at those schools up to 57.6 percent.

The snapshot also found that:

• The persistence rate for students who started at four-year public institutions rose 0.6 percentage points over the prior year, up to 79.3 percent, but still down 2.1 percentage points from 2009.

• The persistence rate for students who started at four-year private institutions rose 0.7 percentage points to 83.7 percent, which was also still down 2.1 percentage points since 2009.

• At four-year for-profits, the persistence rate rose to 0.6 percentage points to 51.8 percent, up 1.3 percentage points since 2010.

“These improvements, however small, are good news for the education system,” said Doug Shapiro, head of the Virginia-based National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“We recovered some of the ground that was lost over the last few years and see more students persisting,” Shapiro said. “It suggests that students are entering college a little bit better prepared and that colleges are doing a better job of keeping them on a path to graduation.”

However, one higher education researcher said a more granular look at demographics is needed in order to know what factors are behind the slight uptick in retention and persistence.

“To really understand what’s behind the trends, we would need to dig more deeply into the data,” said Mamie Voight, Director of Policy Research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based research and policy organization.

For example, Voight said, disaggregating the retention and persistence rates by race and ethnicity and socioeconomic status would help shine more light on which students have seen the greatest gains and which students have not.

“These more detailed data could show us who has experienced increased persistence and help us identify whom we must focus our efforts on to drive the numbers up further and faster,” Voight said.

With those caveats in mind, Voight said the increases in persistence may stem from some of the broader conversations about college completion.

She noted that, in recent years, governments, foundations and others have set completion and attainment goals to drive improvements.

“In the past, many higher education discussions have focused strictly on access to college, but, more recently, we have seen a shift toward an emphasis on completion as well,” Voight said. “This public discourse and attention from policymakers can affect both policy and practice and could be helping to boost the numbers.”

While the NSC report did not break down persistence and retention rates by race or ethnicity or socioeconomic status, it did look at persistence rates by age.

It found that students in the 20- to 24-year-old range saw the largest gains in persistence—up to 53.7 percent or an increase of 3.4 percentage points over the prior year—and up 2.8 percentage points since 2009. However, the report noted, those in the 20- to 24-year-old age range only account for 7.5 of the overall fall 2013 entering cohort.

For students 20 and under, the persistence rate rose 0.4 percentage points to 76.3 percent, which was still down 1.4 percentage points since 2009.

For students over age 24 at college entry, the persistence rate rose 0.7 percentage points over the prior year to 49.3 percent, but it was still down 0.7 percentage points since 2009, the report said.