Smaller Share of Freshmen Stick It Out to Sophomore Year, Report Says

July 10, 2014

The share of students who were still enrolled at any college in their second fall term has slipped slightly in the past few years, according to a report released on Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The report examines all first-time students who started college in the fall of 2012 and tracks where they were a year later. While the retention rate (students returning to the same institution) stayed about the same as in recent years, the persistence rate (students remaining enrolled anywhere) declined by 1.2 percentage points from 2010.

A greater share of the students who left, then, didn’t re-enroll anywhere else. In the 2012 cohort, about one in nine freshmen had transferred by their sophomore year. All figures varied considerably by sector.

Those were the key findings of the research center’s latest report, which is based on data from 3,600 colleges and universities, covering 98 percent of the students attending public and private nonprofit postsecondary institutions.

"Getting past the first year, either by staying put or by transferring to another institution, is one of the most important milestones to a college degree," Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive research director, said in a written statement. "We need to find better solutions for keeping students on track to graduation, whether that means the student transfers or stays put."

Economic recovery could explain why some students stop out (halt their studies temporarily) or drop out altogether, Jason DeWitt, the center’s research manager, said in an interview. Since 2009, the nation’s unemployment rate has dropped four percentage points, he noted.

"It’s possible that some students are quitting college in favor of short-term employment," said Mr. DeWitt. "The challenge is to help students take the long view in making these decisions," encouraging them to understand that a college education is more likely to set them up for a stable career.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Of all first-time students who entered college in the fall of 2012, 69 percent were still enrolled at any American college in the following fall, 58 percent at the same institution.
  • For each entering cohort from 2009 to 2012, the overall persistence rate (any institution) was about 11 percentage points higher than the retention rate (same institution).
  • The persistence rate has declined most—though still slightly, by 1.8 percentage points since 2009—for students age 20 and younger. But that age bracket posted the highest persistence and retention rates over all.
  • The persistence rate among first-time students at four-year private colleges fell by 2.8 percentage points, and at both two- and four-year public colleges by 2.3 percentage points. For students at four-year for-profit colleges, it rose, by 0.7 percentage points.
  • Across all sectors, full-time students had higher persistence and retention rates than did part-time students.