Student persistence, retention rates decline


Of the 2.6 million students who entered college as first-time freshmen in fall 2019, 74% returned to college for their second year. This rate represents a one-year drop of 2 percentage points in this important early student success indicator, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And for community colleges, that decline was even steeper. Persistence rates dropped 3.5 percentage points to 58.5% — the largest decline in all institution sectors. Retention rates also declined the most in the community college sector, down 2.1 percentage points to 51.6%.

Beginning part-time students at community colleges seem to have been most affected. They experienced declines of 5 percentage points and 4 percentage points in their persistence and retention rates, respectively.

“We can now add increased attrition of 2019 freshmen to the severe impacts of the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said in a release.“These losses erase recent improvements that colleges have made in keeping learners on track early. They will ripple through higher education for years.” 

In the report, persistence rate is measured by the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year, while retention rate is by the percentage of students who return to the same institution. These rates had been increasing since their lowest levels in 2012, but have now taken a turn.

Other findings

In terms of race and ethnicity, “persistence rate gaps by race and ethnicity in the 2019 cohort remain as wide as in the previous cohort years,” according to the report. Among all institution sectors, Asian students had the highest persistence rates (86.5%) while Black students had the lowest rates (64.9%). The overall first-year persistence rate fell the most among Latinx students (down from 71.8% to 68.6%). 

At community colleges, Latinx starters declined more year-over-year in fall 2020 than other racial and ethnic groups examined in both persistence (-4.8 percentage points) and retention (-3.3 percentage points), after having remained stable in the recent past.

Approximately 7% of students who entered a community college transferred to a different institution in their first year. But transfer-out rates are lower among Latinx and Black students (4.9% and 6.8%, respectively) compared to white and Asian students (9.1% for both groups).

When looking at majors in the community college sector, all top five associate degree majors by enrollment saw drops in the first-year persistence rate. The greatest persistence and retention rate declines occurred for computer information sciences (60.3% and 56.1%, respectively). That major had increased the most of the top five majors in the previous year.

Health care majors saw their persistence and retention rates fall by 2.2 and 1 percentage points, respectively, after remaining stable in the previous year.

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