76% of Fall 2021 College Freshmen Class Returned to College by Fall 2022

A new report examined persistence and retention rates for first-time college students to help institutions understand trends and disparities in this early success indicator.

76% of Fall 2021 College Freshmen Class Returned to College by Fall 2022

Photo: Prostock-studio, Adobe Stock

Of the 2.4 million students who entered college for the first time in the fall of 2021, 75.7% continued at a U.S. institution by fall 2022, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This persistence rate is 0.9% above the previous cohort and matches the pre-pandemic average for the 2016 to 2018 freshmen classes.

The 2023 Persistence and Retention report found that 67.2% percent of fall 2021 entering students were retained at their starting institution for their second year or earned a credential at that institution within a year of enrollment, a rate 0.5% above the pre-pandemic average. An additional 8.6% transferred out and continued enrollment at another institution by their second fall. This transfer-out rate was essentially flat compared to the previous cohort, meaning that gains in persistence among fall 2021 college starters were driven by the higher share remaining at their starting institution into their second year, says the report.

“It is very encouraging to see that the students who entered college in the second year of the pandemic have stayed enrolled at higher rates,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the Research Center. “The 0.9 pp recovery from the suppressed persistence level of those who started in fall 2020 means nearly 22,000 more students are still in college today.”

Not all institution sectors saw persistence and retention improvements. While community colleges, as well as public and private nonprofit four-year institutions, saw increases in both persistence and retention rates this year, private for-profit four-year colleges and primarily associate degree-granting baccalaureate (PAB) institutions experienced declines. This marks the second consecutive year that community colleges saw gains, approaching levels of persistence and retention not seen since the 2018 entering class. Nonetheless, the community college freshman class continued to shrink in the fall of 2021 while freshman enrollment recovered to pre-pandemic levels in other sectors.

As more people sought short-term, skilled trade credentials in fall 2021, the share of certificate seekers who earned a credential in their first year or persisted into their second fall increased across the top skilled trade majors by enrollment — mechanic and repair technologies, precision production, construction trades, and personal and culinary services. Healthcare majors’ persistence and retention rates improved at all credential levels, but enrollment in these majors was flat among bachelor’s degree seekers and declined among other undergraduates. Computer science, which witnessed double-digit enrollment growth, has also seen increases in persistence and retention among freshmen at all credential levels.

Nationally, retention rates increased regardless of enrollment intensity, while persistence increased only for full-time students and held steady for part-time students. Public two-year institutions were the only sector to experience increases in both full-time and part-time persistence. Both persistence and retention rates declined for part-time students at public and private for-profit four-year institutions, as well as at PABs.

Persistence and Retention Disparities by Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Age

Disparities by race and ethnicity remain large, with a 26-percentage point persistence rate gap between the highest (88.4% for Asian students) and the lowest (62.1% for Native American students). Of note, Native American student persistence and retention increased after sharp decreases last year. Latinx persistence and retention increased in all sectors except for PABs.

Gender-related disparities were stable at the national level compared to last year’s cohort: Persistence and retention rates for female students are nearly 3-percentage points higher than those of their male peers. However, the magnitude of this gender disparity differs by sector. Public four-year institutions have the smallest gender disparity in both persistence and retention, while private for-profit four-year institutions have the largest.

In terms of age, persistence and retention rates held steady or increased this year for starters 20 years old or younger, leading to a 1.4-percentage point increase in both rates nationally for this group. In contrast, rates for older students fell. Those 21 to 24 lost roughly one percentage point, driven by marked declines in persistence and retention at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions that nearly erased last year’s gains. Those 25 and older experienced larger declines in both rates regardless of sector.

The Persistence and Retention report series examines first-year persistence and retention rates for first-time college students. This annual report helps institutions understand trends and disparities in this important early success indicator by institutional type, state, credential type, starting enrollment intensity, major, and student demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and race/ethnicity. This year’s report includes a new data dashboard to enable viewers to analyze, visualize, and interact with the longitudinal data, which are also available for download.

Click here to view the whole report.

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