Persistence and Retention in Higher Education

Persistence and Retention Word Cloud

In higher education, “persistence to graduation” and “retention” are related but distinct terms that are often used to measure and analyze student progress and institutional effectiveness. College and university personnel encounter them with working on institutional or programmatic accreditation efforts. These are confusing terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, and yet they are not synonymous.

For example, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) makes a distinction in its Teaching and Learning: Evaluation and Improvement (Criterion 4C).  In its Guiding Principle 2 (Standard IV), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) requires member institutions to “…commit to student retention, persistence, completion, and success through a coherent and effective support system…”

Here’s a very quick overview of the difference between retention and persistence:


Retention refers to the percentage of students who continue their enrollment at the same institution from one academic year to the next. It measures how many students remain at the same college or university without transferring or dropping out.

Retention is primarily concerned with keeping students within the institution they initially enrolled in.


Persistence, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses a student’s continuous pursuit of a degree or educational goal. It measures whether a student is consistently working toward completing their program or degree, regardless of whether they stay at the same institution or transfer.

Persistence focuses on the overall progress of a student toward their educational goal, which can involve transferring to another institution, taking breaks, or pursuing part-time studies.

The Bottom Line

In summary, while both persistence and retention are crucial metrics in higher education, they differ in focus and scope:

Retention is concerned with students staying at the same institution and measures institutional success in keeping students from leaving.

Persistence is concerned with students continuously working toward their educational goals, which may include transferring to other institutions, taking breaks, or pursuing part-time studies.

Higher education institutions and accreditation bodies use these terms to assess student success and institutional performance, with the goal of improving graduation rates and the overall quality of education. Both are important to quality assurance but are determined by different data.


About the Author: A former public school teacher and college administrator, Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher provides consultative support to colleges and universities in quality assurance, accreditation, educator preparation and competency-based education. Specialty: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).  She can be reached at: