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Student Persistence Rate Inches Toward Pre-Pandemic Level

Three out of four students who started college in fall 2020 — the first fall semester of the COVID-19 pandemic — returned for a second year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That overall student persistence rate of 75% represents a one-year increase of 1.1 percentage points, but is still slightly below the pre-pandemic level of 75.9%. Persistence is defined as students returning to college at any institution in their second year (as opposed to retention, which represents students who return to the same institution).

The NSCRC attributes the persistence gain to an increase in students transferring out of their starting institution to other schools (up 0.9 percentage points), rather than those remaining at the same institution (up just 0.2 percentage points). "This is a reversal of last year's trend, where the decline in the transfer-out rate had caused the first-year persistence rate to drop," the organization explained, adding that the persistence gain was led by community colleges and private for-profit four-year institutions. Other four-year institutions saw small drops in both persistence and retention over the last year.

Among bachelor's degree seekers, the major with the highest persistence rate was engineering (91%), followed by biological and biomedical sciences (89%), liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities (88%), health professions and related clinical sciences (86%) and business, management, marketing and related support (84%).

At the associate degree level, persistence for liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities came out on top (64%), followed by computer and information sciences and support services (62%), health professions and related clinical sciences (60%), business, management, marketing and related support (57%) and security and protective services (55%).

While the overall persistence rate improved, the number of first-time students pursuing higher education saw a sharp decline: -9.9%, or 255,000 fewer students compared with fall 2019. Community colleges made up 58% of the decline in first-time students, the NSCRC noted.

The full report is available on the NSCRC site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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