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The majority of students who started college in fall 2020 came back for their second year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While the persistence rate of 75 percent didn’t quite reach the pre-pandemic level of 75.9 percent, it increased 1.1 percentage points compared to the students who first enrolled in fall 2019.

The report, released Tuesday, evaluated first-year persistence and retention rates for first-time college students. Of the first-time students who persisted to fall 2021, 66.4 percent stayed at the institution where they started or completed a credential there the year they enrolled, while 8.6 percent transferred to another institution to continue their studies.

That transfer-out rate for first-time students was an improvement after dropping from an average of 9.2 percent before the pandemic to 7.7 percent in fall 2019. Full-time students were more likely to transfer out (8.3 percent) compared to part-time students (7.9 percent).

“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,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, said in a press release. “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.”

Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the center, said while the persistence-rate increase may seem like a hopeful finding, its significance is complicated. The rise coincided with steep enrollment declines, with first-time student enrollment falling 9.9 percent in fall 2020, a loss of 255,000 students, compared to fall 2019.

That means the students who persisted to fall 2021 were largely students who had the funds and supports to begin college mid-pandemic and were more likely to successfully stay enrolled, thus raising the persistence rate, she said. Meanwhile, many older students or students from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds just didn’t start college at all that fall.

“Changes year over year in student persistence rates have much to do with the makeup of the entering student cohort,” she said. Low-income and older learners were more likely to defer starting college in fall 2020 compared to “lucky student populations that have resources, who have willingness and ability to enroll in college in the midst of the variety of pandemic-related disruptions.”

Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor and head of the department of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, agreed that the news laid out in the report was mixed, given the students who persisted were “probably more likely to get through anyways” and persistence still has yet to fully rebound.

The persistence-rate increase isn’t “bad news,” but “it’s still disappointing that, yes, persistence is up but enrollment is down to the point that we still see less students reaching the second year of higher education,” he said. He believes a key takeaway from the report is “fall 2021 brought us a little closer to pre-pandemic norms, but we’re not back to pre-pandemic norms.”

There were also disparities in persistence rates related to gender and race. Female students had retention and persistence rates three percentage points higher than their male peers. Persistence increased across all racial and ethnic groups, except for Native Americans, who experienced a 2.8-percentage-point drop. Latino students’ persistence had only a modest improvement, up 0.7 percentage points, after a 2.6-percentage-point drop the year before.

Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said she was glad to see some “signs of hope” and “possibly some inklings of us regaining some stability and moving higher education back toward a bit of normalcy” with a slight rise in persistence. However, she found the persistence rate decrease for Native American students especially troubling.

“I think that is really cause for concern to see those types of declines, particularly within a population that has been so deeply underserved by our higher education system for so long,” she said. “Those inequities that are continuing to show up and in some cases really worsen are an additional area where policy makers and institution leaders really need to be focusing their attention.”

Persistence and retention rates were higher for full-time students compared to part-time students: full-time students persisted at a rate of 80.7 percent and were retained at a rate of 72.4 percent, while part-time students persisted at a rate of 51.5 percent and were retained at a rate of 43.8 percent. But rates for part-time students rose relative to those of full-time students nonetheless compared to the prior year.

Progress in persistence rates was also uneven across institution types. The persistence rate for first-time students starting at public four-year institutions fell two years in a row, while persistence for students starting at community colleges and four-year for-profit institutions improved.

“For community colleges and private for-profits, those are sectors where persistence and retention tend to be lower, and those are also sectors that serve a lot more older students,” Kelchen said. “And in fall 2020, work and childcare became really important. And then in fall 2021, we saw a little bit of a return to normal, and I think that helped students who enrolled in fall ’20 stay in college.”

Ryu said it’s hard to tell whether persistence will continue to rise. She noted that the progress made may be “short-lived” given the unpredictability of the ongoing public health crisis and students’ enrollment patterns as a result.

“We just have to wait and see,” she said. “We are living in a time period where just so much uncertainty is around the American students’ plan for their education. More generally speaking, the health and economic impacts from the pandemic are still emerging. It will take time to see what the consequences might be in terms of disruption to their education plan … It is very difficult and challenging for researchers to predict what next year’s trends are going to look like based on this year’s numbers.”

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