The Finish Line: Retention and Persistence

One of the negative impacts of the pandemic on universities is the significant increase in undergraduates who drop out or “stop out” whilst pursuing academic degrees. Two important progress indicators, retention and persistence, are frequently confused.

Retention tallies the number of students who return to the same institution the following year to continue their studies. For universities, this is important. Governing boards, including the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, view retention data as one measure of institutional effectiveness. The simple principle: if a university carefully admits students who should complete a degree program successfully (enrollment) and provides the opportunities and assistance for them to do so (engagement), then retention rates should be high (success). A university with a 75% retention rate would be viewed as more effective in serving students and utilizing resources than a university with a 65% retention rate.

On the other hand, persistence tracks those students returning to any institution to continue study regardless of affiliation. Both retention and persistence are typically measured for first-time freshmen. In the fall of 2019, 2.6 million first-time U.S. freshmen entered college and 67% or 1.7 million continued in the fall of 2020. These are the lowest rates in nearly a decade. Data shows that after eight years of collegiate enrollment, one in three students have earned some course credit but no degree. They “stopped out.” Although the pandemic shines a bright light on these indicators, they are only the tip of the iceberg regarding the rapidly shifting nature of higher education. Students are evolving, families are evolving, and universities must respond accordingly.

The famous, or infamous, Colman Report – a Civil Rights Act of 1964, Office of Education, LBJ inspired study from Johns Hopkins University, found that one of the most powerful success indicators for primary and secondary education was the nature of family life. Some sociologists and social scientists dismiss the Colman Report, its methods and findings. However, I can find no scholarly or rigorous study willing to claim that family life and family ecology are irrelevant to academic achievement. Not one.

As an advisor to hundreds of students in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University in the mid-1980s, I found that students with a sudden decline in academic performance were frequently experiencing some form of domestic plight. This is, to be sure, anecdotal evidence. In fact, my observations during this same period also revealed that many other students in challenging family circumstances, who should not have been flourishing, were, in fact, achieving success. In hindsight, I attribute that success unscientifically to “personal spit.” A combination of personal determination and drive is difficult to measure, but is essential for accomplishing diverse pursuits, including completing a college degree.

Overvaluing my anecdotal observations might lead some to incorrectly deduce that universities are helpless. We can’t manufacture “spit.” However, opportunities to assist students in working diligently towards degree completion do exist. Effective universities are first and always committed to student success, but no support scaffolding exceeds the power of determination by students to focus and finish, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

My advice? Students and families ought to seek universities that value the finish line.

First: Universities should openly share retention and persistence goals and data. These provide a historical perspective. Each type of university admits different students, with different challenges and different retention rates. By sharing this data, universities can shed more light on trends and provide more transparency to better match potential students’ unique learning preferences and needs.

Second: Palpable mileposts of progress will also assist students in retention and persistence. Discernable breaks in programs, such as the distinction between the pre-professional and professional program for the Bachelor of Science in Nursing, create a completion marker between the sophomore and junior year. Near-term targets provide attainable goals. Many professional programs, such as business, architecture and engineering, for example, naturally offer similar indicators.

Third: Effective online courses allow students to continue progressing towards the degree even in the face of life-demanding breaks in the study. Over one-in-three students depart universities with no degree for financial reasons – singularly the most cited reason for leaving. Online courses allow simultaneous work and study, and if thoughtfully configured, will benefit both.

Fourth: Most importantly, human dimensions of “membership” are paramount while nearly immeasurable. A single faculty member in a productive advising and mentoring relationship with a student can dramatically impact a student’s likelihood of completion. Human capital is developed through human relationships. High-quality faculty, such as at WT’s, are at the center of all positive university experiences. Caring for people breeds commitment.

I recommend students and families look to universities that value the chemistry of student and family individuality, with faculty committed to assisting students to complete degrees and attain aspirations: reaching the finish line.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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