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Report Shows Increases in Retention and Persistence

The rate of college freshmen returning for a second year is at a decade high.

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center noted that more than 76% of students who started college in the fall of 2022 returned for their second year. Done annually, the 2024 Persistence and Retention report shows the persistence rate (returning to college at any institution) rose 0.8 percentage points to 76.5% and the national retention rate (returning to the same institution) rose one full percentage point to 68.2%.

Dr. Doug ShapiroDr. Doug Shapiro“Last year was the first year of kind of a rebound from the declines in the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “This is now a continuation of that, and the progress looks pretty strong. Overall enrollments are still nowhere near back to what they were in 2019, but retention and persistence levels are.”

The largest gain in retention rates over the last decade was in community colleges — increasing 3.7 percentage points from 51.3% for incoming students who began fall 2013 to 55% for those who began fall 2022. Shapiro noted that community colleges saw the sharpest declines in enrollment and persistence at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among part-time students, and that is now rebounding. To continue to improve, Shapiro suggested colleges examine their rates — including examining data by age, race, and gender — and craft programming in response.

“It’s really important to find benchmarks that can help inform efforts to improve at individual colleges,” Shapiro said.

Dr. Amaris Matos, assistant vice president for equity, inclusion, and belonging at Queensborough Community College (QCC, part of City University of New York), said the data in the report align with what the college is seeing.

Dr. Amaris MatosDr. Amaris MatosThe report showed disparities between the national retention rate (68.2%) and the retention rates for Hispanic (63.6%), Black (56.6%), and Native American (52.8%) students.

An audit of student outcomes at QCC showed that Black and Hispanic male students were experiencing inequities in retention and graduation rates. A plan was created to increase retention for all students with special focus for populations that were being disproportionately impacted.

“We’re happy to share that our one-year retention has increased overall 2.3 percentage points from our fall 2020 cohort to our fall 2022 cohort,” said Matos. “For Black and Hispanic males, those increases are larger. Our one-year retention rate for Black males over that same period increased from 47.4% for the fall 2020 cohort to 55.4% for the 2022 cohort, and for Hispanic males, it increased from 50.6% to 58.5%.”

Public four-year institutions have also increased retention rates over the last decade. In the last six years, four-year institutions have surpassed private nonprofit institutions in freshmen retention for full-time students, with the 2022 cohort being at 80.9% and private nonprofit schools at 79.2%.

Figure 1.3aThis chart from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's Persistence & Retention Report shows starting enrollment intensity from 2013 to 2022.National Student Clearinghouse Research CenterDr. Elin Waring, a professor of sociology at Lehman College (CUNY), said cost is a big positive for public institutions. Waring has worked with first-year students who are part of the Lehman’s Step Up Program. The retention for the 2022 cohort was a small step above the previous year. Students who drop out before the completion of the first semester drive the retention rate downward. Those who make it to the end of the semester are retaining at a higher rate.

“We see those students want to come back,” Waring said. “Even if they don’t come back the second semester, we worked hard to stay in touch with them and let them know we think they can be successful in college. … We’ve brought back a lot of students.”

Ongoing outreach is part of Lehman’s post-pandemic retention and persistence strategy. Also, if someone isn’t of a mindset to return as a full-time student, an advisor may direct them to the college’s continuing education program and suggest acquiring a certificate in their area of interest, which may later be converted to college credit.

The report revealed a stark difference in persistence and retention rates came when the data was broken down by age. Among fall 2022 starters age 20 or younger, the persistence rate was 80.9% and the retention rate was 71.9%. Neither the persistence nor retention rates for students 21 to 24 or 25 and older was above 50%.

Adult learners have many life pressures in addition to reacclimating to being a student, so part-time could yield higher retention rates, said Waring, who suggested students “take the number of credits you can be successful in.”

Matos said QCC recently partnered with the national organization Achieving the Dream, which focuses on institutional transformation to improve student outcomes. After surveys and assessments, the college identified key areas to better serve students. One of these is the first-year experience being offered students and developing a more comprehensive approach. Another is integrating career advisement, especially within the first year.

“If you can engage with the students in their first year to help them explore and test their interests in certain majors, you can increase success and retention because they’re taking courses that they’re really excited about,” said Matos of post-pandemic initiatives. “We’ve also launched an office of student success…to try to really be proactive about our outreach to students.”

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