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Home » About the Clearinghouse » Media Center » College Persistence Rate Drops An Unprecedented 2 Percentage Points

Of 2.6 Million First-Time Freshmen, 74% Returned for Their Second Year

HERNDON, VA – (July 8, 2021) – The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported today that of the 2.6 million students who entered college as first-time freshmen in fall 2019, 74 percent returned to college for their second year. This rate represents a pandemic-related, unprecedented one-year drop of two percentage points in this important early student success indicator.

“We can now add increased attrition of 2019 freshmen to the severe impacts of the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “These losses erase recent improvements that colleges have made in keeping learners on track early. They will ripple through higher education for years.”

Highlights from the 2021 Persistence and Retention Report include:

  • There was a marked decline in first-year persistence rate in fall 2020 after remaining stable for the past four years. The overall persistence rate dropped two percentage points to 73.9 percent for fall 2019 beginning college students, its lowest level since 2012.
  • Community colleges showed the steepest persistence rate decline over last year of all institution sectors (down 3.5 percentage points to 58.5%).
  • The persistence rate gaps by race and ethnicity in the 2019 cohort remain as wide as in the previous cohort years, with approximately a 22-percentage point gap between the highest (86.5% for Asian students) and the lowest (64.9% for Black students). White (79.3%) and Latinx (68.6%) students reflect a gap of nearly 11 percentage points. The overall first-year persistence rate fell the most among Latinx students (down 3.2 percentage points from 71.8% to 68.6%).
  • Retention rates declined the most in the community college sector (down 2.1 percentage points to 51.6%) whereas the rates went up in the public four-year college sector (up 0.7 percentage points to 76.3%).
  • Freshmen transferring out in their first year dropped somewhat more than those remaining at their starting institution (-1.2 percentage points vs. -0.7 percentage points). This pattern reflects constrained student mobility during the pandemic as documented in our COVID-19 transfer report.
  • Bachelor’s degree-seeking students in liberal arts majors had the largest persistence rate drop (down 1.6 percentage points to 88.1%). But biological and biomedical sciences and health care majors increased 1.4 and 1.8 percentage points to 82.3 and 78.9 percent, respectively, in their retention rates.

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 is by 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.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

The Research Center currently collects data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in degree-granting institutions, as of fall 2019. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit