Persistence and Retention

Fall 2021 Beginning Postsecondary Student Cohort

July 27, 2023


Nearly 76 percent of the 2.4 million students who started college in fall 2021 returned for their second year. This persistence rate marks a one-year increase of 0.9 percentage points and a return to pre-pandemic levels. Persistence rate gains are notable among full-time students, Native American students, and computer science majors.

The Persistence and Retention report series examines first-year persistence and retention rates for beginning postsecondary students. Persistence rate is measured by the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year, while retention rate represents the percentage of students who return to the same institution. Students attaining a credential in their first year are accounted for in persistence and retention rates. The report is designed to help institutions understand trends and patterns in this important early success indicator, and identify disparities by institutional type, state, degree level, starting enrollment intensity, major field, and student demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and race and 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.

National Highlights

  • The overall persistence rate for students who started college in fall 2021 was 75.7 percent, up 0.9 percentage points (pp) from last year. This persistence rate matches the pre-pandemic average for the 2016 to 2018 entering classes.
  • This latest persistence rate growth was driven by a higher share of students being retained at their starting institution into their second year (+0.9 pp in retention). This is a shift from last year’s trend, where a higher share of students transferring out in their first year drove persistence rate increases.
  • Persistence rates improved in all institution types except for-profit four-year colleges and primarily associate degree granting baccalaureate institutions (PABs). Community colleges saw slight persistence rate gains, building on a sharp increase last year and approaching levels not seen since 2018.
  • Persistence and retention rates increased for all major racial/ethnic groups, except for Asian student retention which was stable (-0.1 pp from last year). Native American students made notable gains after sharp decreases last year (+2.0 pp in persistence and +1.6 pp in retention over last year).
  • The size of the fall entering postsecondary student cohort increased in 2021 for the first time since 2018 (+3.4%, 78,400 students, from last year), although it did not return to pre-pandemic levels. The community college entering cohort in particular remained well below pre-pandemic levels as it continued to decline in fall 2021.

Read more (pdf) or download the data (xlsx) here. Scroll down to explore the data using the data dashboard.

First-Year Persistence and Retention

Beginning Postsecondary Students Each Fall, 2012 to 2021

Compare cohort persistence and retention rates by starting institution, enrollment intensity, and student demographics, using the tabs at the top and the drop-down lists in each tab.

Previous Reports (pdf)
2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2011

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