Persistence, retention rates drop sharply for fall 2019 cohort

Clearinghouse Research Center report shows significant setbacks again for community colleges.
By: | Issue: April/May, 2019
July 8, 2021
More than one-third of students canceled their plans entirely, a decision that was more likely to be made in low-income households. (GettyImages/SDI Productions)GettyImages/SDI Productions

Two of the key measures of institutional success in higher education – persistence and retention rates – sustained freefalls similar to enrollment figures posted over the past year, according to new data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Only 74% of students who entered colleges and universities in fall 2019 decided to continue their studies in 2020-21, a drop of two percentage points from the previous cohort. The Clearinghouse noted in its Persistence and Retention report series it was the first time since 2015 that the numbers fell markedly, reaching their lowest levels since 2012.

Retention rates did not fall as sharply, but still declined 0.8%, the most since reporting began and the first time since 2015 that they had not risen.

“We can now add increased attrition of 2019 freshmen to the severe impacts of the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “These losses erase recent improvements that colleges have made in keeping learners on track early. They will ripple through higher education for years.”

As with enrollment data, which also saw significant declines year-over year, persistence and retention numbers mirrored some failures and successes. For example, persistence at community college numbers dropped 3.5% to 58.5% overall while retention fell 2.1%, the steepest declines of any sector. Private non-profit four-year institutions also did not fare well, seeing drops from those remaining in college (2%) and those remaining at their specific colleges (1.3%). However, four-year public institutions, which also did better than most in terms of enrollment, did post a gain of 0.7% on retention, while falling back just 0.6% in persistence rates. Private for-profit institutions lost few enrolled students.

Other notable findings revealed in the series, which also account for students receiving a credential after their first year:

  • Race: Asian students were more likely to persist at 86.5% compared with White (79.3%), Latinx (68.6%) and Black (64.9%) students. Latinx students sustained the highest drop at more than 3 percentage points. Retention also followed the same pattern, although several percentage points below for each subgroup.
  • Age: All of the three age groups defined in the Clearinghouse data – 20 and under, 21-24 and over 24 – showed losses in both persistence and retention, although students over 21 showed more significant drops in retention.
  • Majors: Those pursuing engineering (92.2%) and biomed (91%) were most likely to persist. Health professions were next at 89%, but those degree seekers were also the most likely to transfer out. Liberal arts majors from the 2019 cohort (88.1) saw the biggest declines in persistence. Perhaps one of the most telling signs of a pandemic-fueled drop was in associate degree seekers. Computer information science students saw persistence fall 3.3%, a year after posting a 1.2% gain.
  • Transfers: A lack of mobility because of the pandemic also likely sparked a 1.5% drop in the number of students transferring after their first year.