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CAEL Pathways Blog

Retention or Persistence? Are they the Same?

Retention or Persistence? In higher education, those terms are often used interchangeably but are they really the same? Perspective and context play significant roles in determining the definitions and use.

I recently spoke with a 35 year old student who referred to herself as having taken 14 years to complete her college degree. We both knew she had not been continually enrolled at college for those years, instead having stopped-out at several different times when life intervened. Through it all she has persisted, continuing to pursue a bachelor's degree despite the obstacles of time, money and access. And, in September, I'm happy to say she will graduate. But, in an age where institutional support from state and federal funding programs is tied to performance models based on retention, she is not the university's target market.

One of reasons why universities and colleges are reluctant to target adult students is that their funding is tied to how they track and report student retention. Retention is commonly defined as staying in school continuously until degree completion. For some institutions, retention rates measure the proportion of students who remain enrolled at the institution year over year. Higher education systems often focus less on what institution students are attending as long as they are enrolled at any college or university in the system. If a student transfers out of the system and attends a private institution, they are no longer counted. And, for many schools, part-time, non-degree seeking and transfer students are not counted at all.

But is the retention of a student the best way to measure institutional performance? Retention, as evidenced by the student referenced above, is affected by myriad variables, many of which are outside the control of the student and the institution. With the cost of education increasing year over year, the working learner is the new model. In a world where students demand more flexibility in scheduling and part-time options, we are still using a retention model based on full-time resident learners.

A recent Washington Post article argued that the performance funding is the wrong way to hold post-secondary accountable, citing a report from the Century Foundation titled Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn't Work. Accountability in higher education is necessary but the underlying assumptions and outcomes need to be defined against the real goal, degree/certificate completion. Attention needs to be given to institutional capacity, available resources, and institutional objectives, especially for schools that serve low-income students and under-served populations. Success measures and funding models must flex to effectively incentivize institutions to assist students in completing programs and realize the return on their educational investment. For adult students, the focus needs to be on persistence not retention, and institution policy and state standards will need to further refine current data collection models to include this importance and unique characteristic.

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