COVID comeback? 2020 college starters saw slight rise in persistence, according to report

However, the latest Clearinghouse data shows large gaps in outcomes on race, gender and age at all levels of institutions.
By: | June 29, 2022
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Although enrollment of first-year students nosedived during the 2020-21 academic year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, persistence of those who did start at higher education institutions reached 75%, according to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The percentage fell short of pre-pandemic levels but still made gains of around 1.1% year over year, showing the resilience of students and their colleges and universities in being able to maintain strong, safe learning environments despite numerous setbacks, including modality changes and lack of social interaction. Student transfers also bounced back to 8.6% for those who did persist but chose to move to different schools (the average before the pandemic was a little more than 9%).

“This year’s persistence rate increase is because of the growth of first-time students transferring out in their first year rather than the increase of those remaining at their starting institution,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Research Center. “This is a reversal of last year’s trend, where the decline in the transfer-out rate had caused the first-year persistence rate to drop.”

Part-time students surged year-over-year in both persistence (+3.5%) and retention (+1.5%), but the news wasn’t as positive for full-timers. They lost ground in the two categories at -0.2% and -0.7%, respectively. The 72.4% retention rate for full-time students in the 2020 cohort was the lowest since 2014 and its persistence (80.7%) was the lowest in 10 years.


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The most notable numbers from the study, which covered all but 3% of Title IV degree-granting colleges and universities, were in the differences among races, gender and age:

  • Asian-Americans in the 2020 cohort led the way with 88% persisting, followed by white students at nearly 80%. Latinx persistence rose 0.7% after falling dramatically in 2019 but still fell short of the two leaders at 69%. Black students were at 65.5% and posted the second-most transfers among those who persisted (10.3%) behind whites (10.6%).
  • The most challenged group were Native Americans, who persisted at just 60%, with only half of students being retained by their institutions. “Not only do Native American students have the lowest persistence and retention rates, but they also experienced the greatest one-year decline of any group,” Clearinghouse authors noted.
  • As for gender, women outpaced men by 2.6%. More men who persisted chose to transfer out than women.
  • While persistence remained largely level for both the 20-and-under group and those 25-and-over, there were sizable increases from those ages 21-24 on persistence (+4.0%) and retention (+3.5%).

Among the various institutions, four-year colleges and universities saw a dramatic decline in retention (-2.6%) and also slightly lost ground on persistence from 2019. They did, however, see gains with part-time students who remained in higher education, including a 3% jump in persistence. Two-year institutions also struggled to make it back to pre-pandemic levels but saw a 2% bump in persistence among full-timers and a 3.5% increase among part-timers.