New data on first-year students’ persistence and retention rates is the latest example of higher education finally overcoming the pandemic’s influence.
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s 2023 Persistence and Retention report concludes that first-year students in fall 2021 had a 75.7% persistence rate, matching levels not seen since 2016 through 2018. A 67.2% retention rate drives the improvement, which bests pre-pandemic averages.
NSCRC defines retention as students who remain at a given institution for their second year instead of transferring, which counts toward persistence.
Rates fare far better for full-time first-years, whose persistence and retention rates best numbers from a decade ago.
“It is very encouraging to see that the students who entered college in the second year of the pandemic have stayed enrolled at higher rates,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Research Center. “The 0.9 pp recovery from the suppressed persistence level of those who started in fall 2020 means nearly 22,000 more students are still in college today.”
First-year community college learners faring better
Rates increased across 4-year public and private institutions, as well as community colleges, whose students boasted the most impressive results. Community college is the only sector whose part-time students’ persistence rates increased, contributing to a three-year growth. Among full-time first-years, their persistence and retention rates best averages from 2012 to 2019. However, community college enrollment numbers haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Persistence by ethnicity and age
Persistence rates increased across all major ethnic groups. White, Black, Hispanic/Latino and Native American populations also saw increases in retention rates. Still, a 20-point gap continues between Black and Asian students; Hispanic learners consistently remain 10 points behind their Asian counterparts.
While students aged 20 and younger follow a linear persistence rate through the past decade at around 80%, those aged 21-24 and 25 and older slope downward. Specifically, persistence among those 25 and older has fallen by 7.3% to 44.2% since 2012.
Students sticking with short-term credentials
First-years seeking a bachelor’s degree experienced positive persistence rates across all ten major fields, with engineering being the highest at 91.6%. Similarly, undergraduate certificate programs had better results than last year in all but one major field. In computer and information sciences, one of the fastest-growing fields in enrolled students, certificate persistence rates had a 6-year best at 53.7%. This helps affirm the trend that more students are seeking—and successfully pursuing—short-term, skilled trade credentials.