To Increase Retention, Higher Education Must Focus on Persistence First

At colleges and universities, high retention rates are viewed as markers of institutional success. However, a report from the University of South Florida revealed that the way higher education data is collected and interpreted can negatively affect student success. For example, a focus on quantitative data like retention rates overlooks the qualitative data that tells educators how students are actually faring.

Persistence is another important metric, though it doesn’t get as much airtime as retention. While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they’re quite different:

Retention is measured by the number of students who re-enroll at the same institution from one year to the next. This metric is typically used in reference to students who return as sophomores after completing their freshman year.

Persistence is measured by the number of students who continue toward their education goal – whether at the same institution or a different one.

Persistence is Personal

High retention rates are largely thought to indicate academic excellence. The underlying assumption is that students who can’t handle their course load simply don’t re-enroll. In theory, it makes sense. In practice, it’s harmful because it ignores the nuances of students’ circumstances.

Think about students who struggle with their mental health (which is a highly prevalent issue). Even if those students earn an average GPA of 3.8, perhaps they’re too stressed to return to a school that didn’t offer adequate mental health support services. Or how about a single parent who works part-time and still manages to do well academically? If their childcare options are limited, they may be forced to withdraw. Their choices to leave would have nothing to do with academic achievement, yet they’d become another retention statistic.

While retention is wholly quantitative, the nature of persistence means that it’s partly personal. Students persist toward their education goals because what they’re doing holds a deeper meaning. Beyond academic abilities, persistence happens for many reasons, including:

  • Self-efficacy (the belief that they are fully capable of reaching their goals)
  • Confidence that their education will lead to their ideal career
  • Genuine interest in what they study
  • A sense of belonging


This is just the tip of the iceberg. Persistence also depends on other factors such as family, finances, health, stress, and more. A 2022 Gallup-Lumina Foundation poll found that 76% of bachelor’s degree students have considered withdrawing from their college or university in the past six months due to emotional stress.

Evolving Students Need Innovative Institutions

Based on declines in first-time college enrollment, McKinsey recommends that institutions limit emphasis on increased revenues from student retention. This is a good starting point. However, some higher education leaders remain laser-focused on retention – and have criticized this generation’s apparent lack of academic fervor.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Steven Mintz has a more optimistic take. In an Inside Higher Ed article, Mintz points out that today’s generation of students face vastly different realities and learning needs than the students who came before them. Mintz argues there’s no need to sound the alarm for a supposed “erosion of academic standards.” Rather, student persistence must be more heavily valued than in the past:

“Academic standards, we are told, are eroding . . . Students, increasingly disengaged and disconnected, allegedly lack the skills employers expect. Institutions, so it is said, pander to students, treating their customers’ misbehavior with kid gloves. I myself take a rather unfashionable view: that grade inflation and the other purported indicators of diminishing standards are only a problem if actual learning declines – which makes the way we teach, conceive of the curriculum, envision the faculty role and assess student learning all the more important. What grade inflation has done is drive student persistence and help undergraduates maintain academic momentum, which are good things, so long as demonstrated learning remains constant or improves.”

Institutions, like students, have evolved. Prioritization of persistence above retention requires a shift in perspective from the business of the institution to the greater good. What’s remarkable is that if students feel seen and heard at your school, they’ll be more likely to re-enroll. In the next post, we’ll explore some common reasons behind persistence – and how to prioritize them.

To Increase Retention, Higher Education Must Focus on Persistence First

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