Report: More College Students Returned for Second Year

The college persistence rate increased last fall but remains below pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

June 29, 2022 · Updated on June 29, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Report: More College Students Returned for Second Year
Photo by Al Seib / Contributor / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

  • Persistence rate is the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year.
  • The persistence rate of students who started college in 2020 was 75%, an increase of 1.1 percentage points compared to the year before.
  • The increase was driven by community colleges and for-profit four-year institutions.

More college students are staying in school for a second year, but not as many as before the pandemic, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).

The persistence rate of first-year college students hit 75% in 2021, an increase of 1.1 percentage points from 2020, according to the center's new Persistence and Retention Report. Prior to the pandemic, the persistence rate was 75.9%.

The report comes nearly four weeks after the NSCRC released data showing enrollment last spring slipped for the fifth consecutive semester.

Persistence rate is the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year. Retention rate is the percentage of students who return to the same institution.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a press release that the figures are a "reversal of last year's trend, where the decline in the transfer-out rate had caused the first-year persistence rate to drop."

Shapiro also noted the transfer-out rate increased to 8.6% for the fall 2020 cohort, boosting the persistence rate after falling to 7.7% for the fall 2019 cohort. That figure averaged 9.2% before the pandemic.

"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," Shapiro said.

Community Colleges, For-Profit Schools Drive Gains

The increase in persistence rates in 2021 was driven by community colleges and private for-profit four-year institutions, according to the report.

Public two-year institutions saw an overall persistence rate increase to 61.5% from 58.5% the prior year. That figure was 62.1% for the fall 2018 cohort of first-year students, who entered their second year in fall 2019, prior to the pandemic. Public two-year institutions saw increases in both full-time and part-time students.

Private for-profit four-year institutions also saw an overall persistence rate increase to 47.4% from 44.8% the year before. That figure was 45.7% before the pandemic. The persistence rate increase at for-profit institutions was driven by full-time students, whereas the persistence rate for part-time students declined.

Other four-year institutions saw small declines: Public four-year institutions saw an overall persistence rate decline to 83.5% for the fall 2020 cohort, compared to 84.1% for the fall 2019 cohort and 84.7% for the fall 2018 cohort. Part-time students at those institutions saw an increased persistence rate of 59.8% for the fall 2020 cohort, compared to 56.7% for the fall 2019 cohort.

Private nonprofit four-year institutions saw first-year students' overall persistence rate fall to 84.5% for the fall 2020 cohort, compared to 85.2% for the fall 2019 cohort and 87.2% for the fall 2018 cohort. Both full-time and part-time students' persistence rates declined at those institutions.

Disparities by Race, Ethnicity Persist

The report notes that, despite the overall persistence rate increase, "disparities by race and ethnicity remain large, with a 28 [percentage point] persistence rate gap between the highest (88.0% for Asian students) and the lowest (60.1% for Native American students)."

The report found that persistence rates decreased for Native Americans, falling by 2.8 percentage points for the fall 2020 cohort.

The persistence rates for all other racial and ethnic groups increased. Latino/a students' persistence rate increased by 0.7 percentage points after a 2.6 percentage point persistence rate decline the year before.