Students Are Returning to College at the Highest Rate in a Decade: Report

Retention and persistence rates increased from 2021 to 2022, and both are at a decade-high after dipping just before the pandemic.
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Published on July 1, 2024
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  • Over 76% of students who started college in fall 2022 returned to college the next year, and over 68% returned to the same college.
  • Community colleges have seen the biggest retention rate gains over the last decade.
  • The majority of students who begin at 20 years old or younger are staying in college, but less than half of learners from ages 21-24 and older than 25 returned to college for their second year.
  • Hispanic, Black, and Native American students' retention rates are below the national average. However, retention rates for Black college starters in fall 2022 increased at about the same right as the national rate.

A new report found that students who start college are coming back for a second year at a higher rate than they have in the last decade.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) found that retention and persistence rates both increased from 2021-2022. Retention refers to students who returned to the same college, and persistence refers to students who went to different colleges.

The percentage of students who started college in fall 2022 and returned to any college for a second year is 76.5%, up from 75.7% for the 2021 starting cohort. The national retention rate also rose from 67.2% for the 2021 entering cohort to 68.2% for the 2022 entering cohort.

According to the report, both retention and persistence rates held steady from 2015-2018, but dropped for the cohort starting college in 2019 ahead of the pandemic. Institutions are finally seeing a rebound.

While there is still much room for further improvement, these findings are great news for students and institutions alike, and another sign that the struggles of students who enrolled during the pandemic are behind us, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSCRC, in a press release.

First-year persistence and retention are strong early indicators for students staying enrolled throughout their program of study and eventually completing college.

Younger students are also staying in college more than older learners.

In 2022, almost 81% of students who started college at 20 years old or younger persisted through their second year at any college, and nearly 72% stayed at the same college. Less than half of learners ages 21-24 and older than 25 returned to college for their second year.

Hispanic, Black, and Native American students are also not staying in college as much as the national average. However, the retention rate for Black college starters in fall 2022 increased at about the same rate as the national growth.

Some colleges and universities are recognizing the disparity in Black student retention rates and are trying to improve them.

Fayetteville State University, a historically Black institution, previously held the lowest retention rate in North Carolina. After introducing a free summer class program in 2021, the school boosted retention from 63.3% in the fall of 2020 to 77.7% in the fall of 2022.

Community colleges saw the highest retention rate gains in the last decade. It was about 51% for students who started college in fall 2013. Almost 10 years later, the rate rose to 55% for the fall 2022 starting cohort.

Over the years, community colleges have begun offering four-year degree programs and are commonly responsible for some of the most popular credentials and workforce development certificates. They also are streamlining the pathways to local four-year institutions.

Community colleges in Pennsylvania, Maine, and Massachusetts are giving students either discounted or free community college.

Certificate and trade-related programs also saw higher persistence rates. Students pursuing mechanic and repair technologies, production, construction trades, computer science, and business certificates have persistence rates between 56% and 61%.

Some of the most popular majors saw increases in persistence and retention. Within the top 10 most popular majors, health had the highest persistence rate of 87.9%, and computer science had an 85.7% persistence rate.

Outside of the top 10 most popular majors, communications and journalism saw slight increases in persistence and retention rates: The persistence rate was about 90%, and retention rate was 81.5% for these majors.

The states with the most success at retaining students are North Carolina and Washington, with multi-state/primarily online institutions following behind.

North Carolina leads all states with a persistence rate of 78.8%. Of all the initiatives the state introduced for college students, perhaps the most public are the numerous needs-based discounts for in-state students from the North Carolina basketball rivals.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers in-state undergraduate students whose families make under $80,000 free tuition and fees. It also offers the Carolina Covenant Scholarship, a debt-free, need-based scholarship for students whose family/individual income doesn't exceed 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.

Duke University offers free tuition and fees to North and South Carolina students from families making $150,000 or less. It also provides more assistance for housing, meals, course materials, and other expenses for students from families making $65,000 or less per year.