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Student Retention

3 minute read

Student Persistence vs Student Retention: What Is The Difference?


In a world of detailed analytics, there is a phrase that we at Suitable like very much: what gets measured gets managed. 

In other words, what you spend the most time quantifying, calculating and reporting on is what you will spend the most time attempting to influence. 

Nowhere is this phrase more apparent than in the world of student retention, where a few percentage points in retention rates in either direction can make a huge impact on a school’s bottom line. The entire economy of higher education, after all, is built on students finishing their studies and gaining a degree. But how you measure this very important metric can speak volumes about the way your school views its students. 

Take, for example, the difference between Student Retention and Student Persistence. These terms may seem very similar; in fact, many higher education professionals use them interchangeably. But there are some very important distinctions in the way each is measured that provide a window into how the school views its responsibility to students. 

What is Student Retention?

Student retention is one of the most important metrics in higher education. Put simply, schools measure the student retention rate as the number of students who re-enroll from one year to the next. The practice of student retention encompasses all the things the school does to influence this rate, working to prevent students from leaving school before completing their degree. 

Student retention rate--the core metric of student retention--is a top-down metric, in that it looks at students as a cohort. How many students, for example, were retained from the class of 2018 vs the class of 2019? 

Student retention rate, and a school’s success in influencing it, have become ways of judging a school’s effectiveness over time--by examining if a school is improving retention rate, the assumption goes, one can assume the school is improving the student experience. 

What Is Student Persistence?

Student Persistence is an individual student measurement. This metric attempts to quantify the drive, determination, and activities that propel students forward toward their degrees.

While Retention is an institutional metric like the cost to keep the lights on or professors’ salaries, Persistence as an analytic measurement is more vague.

At its base level, a student has persisted if they progress to the next term, and you could argue that students show their persistence simply by continuing their studies. 

The difference is that persistence is a bottom-up metric individual to the student. A student is persistent. A school retains them. 

To measure this effectively and go deeper than just whether or not they remained at the school, some administrators go further in measuring the experience of each individual student to gauge the likelihood of them being retained, hoping to understand the level or intensity with which a student is surviving or thriving towards their educational goals. 

So how can a school effectively measure this intensity? There have been several methods and theories posited to explore this. Some point out the need to track persistence throughout each student’s educational journey, including if they transfer schools or “stop-out”. Others explore activities and engagement that move a student towards needed competencies as evidence of persistence. Still others express the need to tailor each program to each individual student’s timeline or academic/career goals. 


Why Schools Need Both

Understanding student retention is necessary for any university to thrive. And because retention is complicated, having a global, top-line metric like student retention rate provides a helpful overview that can allow schools to examine cohorts differently and understand how deep a retention problem a cohort may have. 

But student retention cannot be reduced to just student retention rate. Entire constellations of factors go into how and why schools retain students from year to year. Take the COVID-19 pandemic as a perfect example. Lowered retention rates during a pandemic cannot necessarily be attributed to a school’s quality. External factors--family health, child care, financial worries--caused retention rates to plummet across the country. 

The same can be true for any college or university that has a higher-than-average population with unique challenges. For example, if your school has a higher concentration of first-generation students or part-time working parents, your school can experience higher-than-average retention rate drops. 

So how do schools battle this volatility?

One way Suitable’s partner schools have dealt with this is to collect more data, build a more complete profile of the whole student, and address retention from the bottom up by focusing on engagement and persistence toward individual goals. 

Engagement Shows Persistence

By creating individualized curricular and co-curricular roadmaps for students, our partners understand the goals and challenges each student is working with and collects data on their progress towards achieving their stated goals. If engagement with the plan starts to fall off, advisors know to step in, offer resources based on the student’s challenges and get them back on track. 

They do this by tracking engagement. Each roadmap is set with activities, tasks, events and more, all designed to give a student the experiences they need to build competency towards their goals. These deliverables are leveled and gamified so students can show progress as they go. That engagement shows their persistence and allows schools to better understand the risk factors that lead to attrition. 

While retention and persistence may seem the same, persistence is just one aspect of a broader student experience that leads to fluctuations in retention rate over time. However, while persistence is just one part of retention, it is a very important factor in understanding the biggest risk factors for student attrition--financial issues, child care, family health and more. 

By collecting both curricular and co-curricular data, building customized pathways and roadmaps and proactively intervening when students run into trouble, schools can encourage both persistence and retention, as well as create a better experience for all students. 

To learn more about retention and persistence initiatives from Suitable partners visit us here and here.  

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John Steele

John Steele