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Student Persistence vs. Retention in Higher Education

Strong persistence and retention are essential to higher education’s very existence. These metrics are how institutions keep earning revenue, garner strong reputations, achieve their missions and satisfy shareholders.

In order to keep their doors open, every college and university should focus on recruiting and retaining students in a challenging market

This article is designed to break down those terms and define strategies for increasing persistence and retention.

What is persistence?

In higher education, persistence is an individual student measurement. It refers to a student staying enrolled and continuing their academic journey from term to term until they achieve their educational goals, typically earning a degree or other credential. 

Persistence speaks to a student’s determination, drive and use of resources to overcome challenges, adapt to new environments and push through obstacles to reach objectives. 

What is retention?

Retention is a measure of institutional success. It refers to a college or university’s capacity to keep students engaged and enrolled in their programs until they successfully complete their studies, typically culminating in a degree. Retention encompasses all the efforts institutions make to prevent students from leaving the college or university—whether to transfer elsewhere or stop their higher educational journey entirely.

Depending on an institution’s goals, its leadership may choose to measure the retention of students in a number of different ways—such as by including or excluding part-time learners, non-traditional students or transfer students. 

However, the typical “student retention rate” as defined by the majority of institutions (along with accreditors, national rankings and researchers) is first-year retention—the percentage of all first-time, first-year students who begin their enrollment in the fall term of one year and stay enrolled the following fall. 

What is the difference between persistence and retention?

Persistence is closely related to retention but the terms are not synonymous. Retention focuses on the actions and strategies employed by institutions to keep students enrolled, while persistence emphasizes the efforts and mindset of students to persevere despite expected and unexpected challenges. As explained by the National Student Clearinghouse:

“Persistence rate is measured by the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year, while retention rate represents the percentage of students who return to the same institution.”

Put another way, retention measures an institution’s success and persistence measures a student’s. A student who transfers to another institution has persisted in their studies but they have not been retained by their starting college or university. 

Despite their differences, persistence and retention rates are interdependent; improving one nearly always involves improving the other. Institutions that prioritize retention strategies can positively influence student persistence and vice versa.

Persistence and Retention Rates in the United States

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, the average persistence rate for college students between 2012 and 2021 was 74.8%. Students who started at four-year private, non-profit universities persisted at the highest rate: 86.3%, followed by four-year public institutions at 84.9% and 60.8% at two-year public colleges. Students at private, for-profit institutions trailed with a 50.1% persistence. 

The average retention rate was slightly lower, averaging 65.9% across all institutions—52.4% for two-year public colleges, 75.8% for four-year public universities and 76.4% for four-year, private non-profit universities. For-profit universities had the lowest average retention rate, at 44%. 

Despite low rates, there are proven ways to improve persistence and retention. Check out our blog posts about it!

Jodi Tandet

Jodi Tandet

Jodi Tandet is Modern Campus's Manager of Brand Content. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Creative Writing from Emory University and a Master's in College Student Affairs from Nova Southeastern University. As a campus professional, she's advised student organizations, planned co-curricular events, developed leadership programs and staffed trips abroad. Jodi lives in Riverview, Florida with her canine roommate, Maisi.

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Last updated: October 16, 2023


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