Persistence vs. Retention: How to Measure & Improve Rates

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persistence vs retention

In higher education, “persistence” and “retention” are often used interchangeably. But there are stark differences between the two — especially when it comes to measuring and improving rates.

Read on for information about:

Persistence vs. Retention: Definitions & Differences

Why Are Persistence & Retention Rates So Important?

How Institutions Can Improve Persistence & Retention Rates

Persistence vs. Retention: Definitions & Differences

What is Persistence?

In higher education, persistence rates show a student’s ability to continue on to the next term.

Every state and school system will have their own definition of what it means for a student to persist. Here are two examples that can be found in many states:

  • A student enrolls in term 1 and persists to term 2.
  • A student is present on day 1 of term 1 and persists to the last day of term 1.

What is Retention? 

Just as with persistence rates, the definition of retention will vary from state to state and system to system. Generally, higher education defines retention as one of the following:

  • Students are retained from fall term in year 1 to spring term in year 1.
  • Students are retained from fall term in year 1 to fall term in year 2.

Retention rates are one of the most important measurements in higher education for two reasons:

  1. It’s much easier and far more affordable for a college to retain their current students than to recruit new ones.
  2. The amount of funding an institution receives is dependent on their ability to retain students.

What is the Difference Between Persistence & Retention?

Where persistence rates measure a student’s ability to continue on to the next term, retention rates are campus-wide and show an institution’s ability to retain students.

Students who persist to the end of the term or through to graduation have a positive effect on retention rates. But in a few circumstances, if a student persists it doesn’t necessarily benefit retention rates. Persistence for a student could mean they transfer from College A to College B. So even though the student is continuing their education, College A will take a hit to its retention since the student transferred.

Why Are Persistence & Retention Rates So Important?

Low retention rates are a warning sign that students are struggling. But this metric — which is one of the most defining for any institution — can’t be improved without first addressing student persistence.

In the last few years, state legislators have intervened by enacting performance-based funding models to ensure that colleges and universities are prioritizing student success. This shift led to the passage of AB 705, which required California community colleges to eliminate developmental education courses. Instead, students are now placed in transfer-level English and math courses based on their high school performance.

The result? “The number of students completing transfer-level courses in their first year has substantially increased,” said Jonathan Newnam, IT Business/Technical Analyst for American River College.

Read more on how California community colleges can satisfy AB 705.

How Institutions Can Improve Persistence & Retention Rates

Understand Your Student Body

Not only do colleges and universities have high competition and new legislation to follow, they are also trying to keep up with ever-changing student personas.

U.S. News & World Report states that one-third of current college students are first-generation, and 33% of all college students take at least one class online. Compared to 10 years ago, this is a drastic shift in the type of students who are enrolling and how they are choosing to learn.

Amidst the changing educational landscape, institutions need to cater to these cohorts to keep retention rates high, while also considering their unique demographics. A community college in Los Angeles likely has a completely different student body than a state university in the Midwest. And different student populations will have varying needs — the community college in Los Angeles could be made up of mostly local, working students while the university in the Midwest could have students from all over the country.

The key is understanding the students who are attending YOUR institution. What does your data show? Are most first-year students coming from the same zip code? Do you have higher enrollments in online courses than on-campus classes? Every school will be unique. Once you have clearly identified your institution’s demographics, you can implement strategies that will cater to them.

Shift Your Focus to Persistence

Just as legislation has done, colleges and universities need to shift their focus from school-wide retention to student persistence. First, you need a clear understanding of your student body, and then you can redirect retention efforts to persistence strategies.

For example, if fall to spring retention rates are low, take a closer look at the cohorts that are dropping out. What do they have in common? If they are first-generation students, how can you intervene before they decide to leave?

The immediate solution may be to help them register for the next term to get retention rates up. While that can be effective, consider if it will actually help a student persist. Maybe you can start an academic advising program specifically for this cohort, or offer extra guidance to support them before they register for the next term. The key here is to put student needs first, and then retention will come naturally.

Data has the power to help institutions make the shift from a retention-driven approach to a persistence-based model. But a change like this isn’t possible overnight. A data analytics infrastructure makes it easy to automate processes, rework curriculum and track student success.

Precision Campus is a cloud-based data analytics platform that was developed to help higher education make better decisions through data. You can find more information about our platform here, or contact us for a free demo.