Assessing Equity Gaps in Persistence 

Persistence is the metric that helps us understand whether specific categories of students stay in school. The persistence rate shows the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year.

Persistence is often studied alongside retention, which measures the percentage of students who return to the same institution.

For diversity, equity, and inclusion purposes, the Clearinghouse will highlight persistence instead of retention because, in this context, it is more important that students continue their higher education, regardless of the college or university they attend.


The interactive graphics below show persistence over time for different institution types and student demographics, as well as high school income level and school urbanicity. These views make it easier to identify trends and compare data for the populations of interest to your institution or organization.

Most of these graphics are interactive. To view specific categories or groups in a chart, simply select the name of the category or group to hide or display it.

Overall persistence rates (i.e., rates for all institution types combined) have remained relatively constant for different racial/ethnic groups over the six years shown. However, comparison of specific institution types and student groups reveals disparities. For instance, while the persistence rate for Black students rebounded in 2020 to pre-pandemic levels at public institutions (both two- and four-year), it continued to decline at private institutions.

The persistence rate for a given year reflects the percentage of students enrolled in the fall term of that year who returned the following fall. The decreased persistence rate for fall 2019 enrollees is likely due effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the 2.3 million students who entered college for the first time in fall 2020, 75% returned to school at some U.S. institution in fall 2021. This rate represents a 1.1 percentage point increase over the previous year’s cohort. Nevertheless, there was some variance within the 2020 cohort by race/ethnicity.

In its first year, the COVID-19 pandemic affected every racial/ethnic group to some extent. But in succeeding years, some groups (e.g., International Students) rebounded more strongly than others (e.g., American Indian/Alaskan Native).

Community colleges have unique challenges and opportunities with respect to educational equity. These factors warrant examining community college data separately in addition to including them in analyses of higher education institutions overall.


A Clearer Picture

Viewing basic persistence trends, such as those shown in the graphics above, is only the first step.

Many factors affect college persistence, so it’s important not only to analyze the data by student demographics and institutional type but also to understand the potential systemic barriers to staying in school.

This deeper analysis can identify specific barriers to — and opportunities for — achieving equity in education.

Income and Urbanicity 

In the High School Benchmarks report, the Clearinghouse analyzes college persistence rates by the urbanicity (urban, suburban, rural character) and income level and of the high schools students graduated from.

Although we have only a limited ability to look at these characteristics at the individual student level, we can gain some insights into these factors by combining publicly available information and the data that high schools provide to the Clearinghouse.

Thousands of high schools participate in the Clearinghouse’s StudentTracker® for High Schools service to receive college access and success outcomes for their own graduates. We combine these data with information about high school urbanicity and high school income level (from the National Center for Education Statistics).


It is important to look at disaggregated data to help us identify disparities. Often, more than one level of disaggregation is needed to unpack students’ intersectional characteristics. If you’re ready to dig deeper and start exploring student access, progression, and outcomes based on multiple intersecting categories, such as race, age, gender, first-generation status, and part-time or full-time student status, consider joining the Clearinghouse’s Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP).

Go Deeper 

Interested in learning more about equity gaps in persistence?

A note on racial/ethnic designations: Racial and ethnic categories and designations change over time. The Clearinghouse continually examines the way it categorizes and labels different races/ethnicities.

For purposes of clarity, two current designations deserve mention here:

  • Hispanic: In recent years, the Clearinghouse has also used LatinX when discussing individuals of Latin heritage. However, Hispanic is the label most frequently used in data collected or reported over the past decade. For the sake of consistency in comparing data, we have opted to use Hispanic across this website.
  • Additional races/ethnicities: This label may comprise American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Two or More Races, and International Students.

Learn more about the Clearinghouse data collection, management, and limitations here.


The starting point in measuring — and ultimately achieving — equity in higher education is enrollment. No one can attain a degree without first getting access.


Rates of degree attainment are the final internal check on institutional equity. Completion rates track the credentials students earn within six years after they first enroll in a college or university.