Persistence vs. Retention

College students studying in the library sitting at a table


Student persistence. Student retention. These terms are used daily in higher education, often interchangeably. Are they really the same thing? According to Hagedorn (2005), the National Center for Education Statistics defines “retention as an institutional measure and persistence as a student measure” (p. 6). This boils down to institutions do the retaining and students do the persisting. Clear as mud right? Throw in attrition, graduation, stop-out, and drop-out and one quickly realizes why so much effort and research exists in the world of persistence and retention.

Regardless of said effort and research, confusion remains. To wit, “starting with a commonly used definition of a graduate- a former student who has completed a prescribed course of study in a college or university, it is clear that all graduates have persisted. However, not all persisters will graduate” (Hagedorn, 2005, p. 6). If the logic square of your undergraduate years just jumped into your head bringing along with it a strange mix of nostalgia and mild anxiety, you are not alone.

Hagedorn does an excellent job of laying out a “new look at an old problem” and even moves into looking at retention from multiple angles much like Boyer did for scholarship when he dropped the Scholarship Reconsidered thought bomb in 1990. However, let us move away a bit from the what and into the why. Why do institutions care about persistence and retention? Why should you care about persistence and retention?

Institutions care about persistence and retention for myriad reasons, some altruistic and some very pragmatic. Student success, however defined, lives at the heart of every institution (I realize this could be challenged, but I have chosen to keep my cynic hat in the closet for today’s screed). At the same time, increased competition and federal oversight result in schools scrutinizing student numbers in very different ways than ever before. Tinto (2006) observed that some 40 years ago student attrition was looked at mostly from a psychology lens and focused mostly on student “attributes, skills, and motivation” (p. 2).

However, that one-pronged approach has been thoroughly eradicated in the intervening years. We now have a range of models, some sociological, some psychological, and others economic in nature that have been proposed as being better suited to the task of explaining student leaving (Tinto, 2006, p. 4). Again, great work trying to understand why students do or do not persist or why institutions have fluctuating retention numbers.

In a former life as a higher education administrator I was in these conversations. I crunched the numbers. I played fast and loose with the “factors” I thought we could control as an institution and those that were completely up to the student. We surveyed students on individual courses, on overall program outcomes, and even asked graduates to tell us what we could have done better. I read countless essays, all extremely earnest, detailing what the chosen graduate degree would do for each respective student’s future. In all those meetings, in the midst of reading, or staring cross-eyed at spreadsheets, the one question I never remember asking any student directly was this. What does completing your degree mean for you?

Do not get me wrong, I cared and fought for students both as an administrator and as an instructor. I saw tears of joy at graduation and I stared into eyes of complete despair when a student thought their educational journey had come to an end. However, I do not think I ever did an adequate job ensuring that persistence and retention came together not just as terms, but as binding activities creating shared success stories and ultimately creating a personal relationship between student and school.

McLenney and Waiwaiole (2005) presented six strategies to promote student success. Strategy #4 is by far my favorite – Collective Responsibility and Team Building.

Improving student retention is not something that can be done by an isolated group at the college…or achieved through a single stand-alone initiative. Improving retention rates is a collective responsibility: everyone—faculty, staff and administrators, along with the students themselves—must work together to promote student success. (McLenney and Waiwaiole, 2005, p. 40)

Define these terms as you see fit. Pour over data to set your goals and to benchmark against national data or peer institutions. Set up committees or let activities organically happen from program to program. No matter what you do proactively or reactively, never ever forget that at the heart of what we do in higher education is helping students achieve success. Use essays for admission decisions, and then take the time to truly understand why students are at your institution and discover their hopes, dreams, and goals. Create the relationship. Move away from thinking only about what students can do to persist and what institutions can do to retain. Create a new model. Persistion, anyone?




Boyer, E.L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Hagedorn, L. S. (2005). How to define retention: A new look at an old problem. In A. Seidman (Ed.), College student retention (pp. 89-105). Westport: Praeger Publishers.

McClenney, K.M. and Waiwaiole, E.N. Focus on student retention: Promising practices in community colleges. Community College Journal, 75(6), 36-41.

Tinto, V. (2006). Research and practice of student retention: What next? Journal of College Student Retention, 8(1), 1-19.