Why “Retention” and “Persistence” Aren’t Synonyms

If you work in higher education, you’re familiar with the concept of student “retention.” This refers to the number of students who re-enroll, typically between their freshman and sophomore years. Every school, of course, is striving for a 100 percent retention rate, with every student returning to continue their coursework. Universities and colleges take these numbers very seriously, often designing programs and initiatives to boost them. In short, retention is a big deal.

As an educator, advisor, career counselor, or administrator, you’ve probably also heard the very same statistics referred to as the rate of your students’ “persistence.” Your institution may believe that students have persisted simply because they continued on with their degree at your school.

However, when informed by educational research and looked at with a more nuanced perspective, retention and persistence aren’t interchangeable at all. While the choice of word for school statistics may seem like a silly semantic issue, the two options actually offer quite different definitions of academic achievement – they vary in scope, perspective, and value to students. Read on to learn more about the importance of making the proper distinction for each.

The Similarities

It’s no coincidence that retention and persistence are often seen as synonyms. They do describe somewhat similar concepts, after all. According to the Rhode Island Office of Higher Education’s “Postsecondary Retention and Persistence: A Primer,” a school’s “retention rate is the percentage of a given cohort that enrolled at the institution the following fall (e.g., the percentage of bachelor’s degree-seeking students who enrolled at [an institution] in fall 1998 and returned in fall 1999).” Retention is, simply put, the students who enroll again after a given period of study (usually one year). In the same document, the Rhode Island Office of Higher Education notes: “persistence refers to the act of continuing towards an educational goal (e.g. earning a bachelor’s degree).” Obviously, the “act of continuing” would in almost all cases involve re-enrollment, so it’s easy to see why retention and persistence are considered the same.

The Differences

However, despite the fact that they describe some similar dynamics (students keeping on with their studies), retention and persistence have some key disparities. The main areas in which they differ are:


  • Scope. Retention is a broad, school-wide, institutional-level statistic. It measures students in the hundreds or thousands. It considers students, as the Rhode Island Office of Higher Education puts it, by cohort. It tells you something about how the class of 1998 is doing, but not anything about any individual pupil in that cohort. Persistence, on the other hand, is an intensely personal term. You could measure an individual student’s persistence by how well he or she continues striving toward his or her goals, but you cannot measure an individual student’s retention.
  • Perspective. Retention and persistence also address the issue of student success from different viewpoints. Retention is a somewhat passive activity – so much so that describing it often involves the passive voice – a student “is retained.” While the goal of retention is just to make sure students come back, persistence is much more active. Persistence describes the drive, determination, and activities that propel students forward toward their degrees. Furthermore, retention takes a “top-down” approach to student success, assuming that if the cohort is generally re-enrolling, students must be doing well. In contrast, persistence takes a “bottom-up” perspective, improving retention by ensuring that individual students in a cohort thrive.
  • Value to Students. Virtually no college or university students know about their school’s retention rates. Why would they? To them, it’s just another institutional metric, much like maintenance costs or professors’ payroll. However, students do care deeply about persistence. They’re often actively concerned about their own (and their friends’) ability to get through courses, come back the following year, and earn a degree.

These are the primary ways the terms retention and persistence vary in meaning. While their differences mays seem small, they’re nuanced in very important ways. The words and metrics you use to track student success could have a significant effect on your students’ lives.

Want to Learn More About Retention and Persistence?

As a leading assessment and professional services provider (The Myers-Briggs Company) whose VitaNavis analytics platform helps students immediately engage and work toward their educational goals, we know a thing or two about retention and persistence. To find out more about the latest research on these terms, our experts’ analysis of recent trends, and the steps you can take to ensure your students flourish, download our white paper, The Persistence Perspective on Retention.

Why “Retention” and “Persistence” Aren’t Synonyms

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