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Student Persistence: A Decline for Spring 2021 Enrollments?

Student Persistence: A Decline for Spring 2021 Enrollments?


The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) provides enrollment reporting from colleges and universities that educate approximately 97% of all college students. Several times a year, they issue reports utilizing the aggregated data submitted by its institutional members.

Last week, the NSC issued a report about college student persistence that looks at the enrollment and re-enrollment data from the Fall 2019 first-time freshmen. The big headline is that only 74% of those first-time freshmen returned to college for their second year. This represents an unprecedented 2% drop for the first time since the NSC started tracking this data in 2009. The number was the lowest return rate recorded since 2012.

Community college students recorded the steepest year-over-year decline at 3.5% with an overall re-enrollment rate of 58.5%. On a positive note, the percentage of freshmen who transferred to another institution after their first year declined from 9.2% to 7.97%.

As usual, there was a notable difference between the retention and persistence rates of full-time versus part-time students. Out of the overall student persistence rate of 73.9%, full-time students persisted at an 80.9% rate while part-time students persisted at a 48.0% rate. Full-time students’ persistence rates declined 1.6% and part-time students’ persistence rates declined 4.3%.

There continues to be a sizable persistence gap by race and ethnicity. The highest persistence rate was achieved by Asian students at 86.5%, and the lowest was achieved by Black students at 64.9%. White students achieved a 79.3% persistence, and Latinx students achieved a 68.6% persistence.

There is a breakout of persistence by age group, but given the definition, I believe the groupings behave more along the lines of the full-time and part-time students. The NSC has separated the age groupings by age 20 or younger, ages 21-24, and ages 25 and older.

When you think about it, it’s unlikely many students 21 or older would have been freshmen in the fall of 2019 unless they were part-time. Sure enough, the 20 and under grouping persisted at a 78.5% rate, the 21-24 persisted at a 46.8% rate, and the 25 and older group persisted at a 44.5% rate with the first group matching the full-time rate and the latter two groups closely matching the part-time rate.

The report provides persistence data by type of institution. Institutions are organized into four-year public, two-year public, four-year non-profit, and four-year for-profit.

Not surprisingly, there is a marked decrease in persistence between full-time and part-time students other than at for-profit institutions where the rates are similar because the for-profit full-time persistence rate is lower than the other institutional category full-time rates. Rather than speculating on the reason why that is the case, I plan to ask some of my fellow retention and persistence researchers what they believe may explain this difference.

Among the five most popular undergraduate majors at four-year colleges, engineering experienced the highest persistence rate at 92.2%, followed by:

  • Biology and biomedical sciences (91.3%)
  • Health professions and related clinical (89.0%)
  • Liberal arts and sciences (88.1%)
  • Business, management, and marketing (85.6%)

At the two-year institutions, the five most popular majors experienced the following student persistence rates:

  • Liberal arts and sciences (61.9%)
  • Computer and information sciences (60.3%)
  • Health professions and related clinical (59.4%)
  • Business, management, and marketing (56.7%)
  • Security and protective services (54.1%)

Since the NSC includes students who transfer to another institution but who continue to be enrolled in the persistence count, I expected to see a higher percentage of transfers in these community college majors. However, that was not the case.

While the persistence rates declined for the first time in a while, that does not concern me. After all, these are rates measuring the return to college by students who were freshmen in the fall of 2019, which was pre-pandemic. I can understand why the persistence declined, given the disrupted Spring 2020 semester.

For students who were uncertain about their desire to attend Fall 2020 classes online, I can understand why they did not return. If there is not another pandemic wave in the fall of 2021, I am optimistic that student persistence will improve.

The trend that I am more concerned about is the persistence trend for part-time students, particularly as it relates to those that enrolled for the first time in Spring 2020 as compared to Spring 2021 or later. At the graduate level, it appears that many adults who were working from home signed up for online classes in the spring and summer of 2020. Whether they returned a year later may have depended on whether they had returned to the office or were still working from home.

While tracking student persistence and retention is important for all institutions, it’s important to note the differences between full-time and part-time students. In some way, it would be better if NSC issued two student persistence and retention reports, one that focuses on full-time students and one that focuses on part-time students.

There are many potential disruptions to a college education for part-time students that do not happen to full-time students. Separating the reports could provide researchers and policymakers an opportunity to focus on each distinctly different student population.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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