Published on 2013/10/24

Persistence Beneficial for Students and Institutions

Persistence Beneficial for Students and Institutions
In order to increase the overall national higher education completion rate, institutions must pay close attention to the factors and strategies that increase adult retention.
Student persistence in higher education is becoming a more visible issue today. A proposed new federal rating system’s broad goal is to determine “how many students at an institution graduate, at a reasonable cost, without a lot of debt, and get a job that enables them to support themselves and their families.”[1] It seems likely that future federal funding will be tied to these performance metrics.

To advance degree completion rates, a number of state governments have implemented performance funding models. In Illinois, this model rewards progress in increasing degree completion and serving underrepresented populations (Pell eligible, adults and Hispanic and Black students). The Illinois system also rewards increases in completion in STEM and health shortage areas. Other states are further along in implementing similar systems.

Accrediting bodies are entering this field as well. According to the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission, completion is now an accreditation criterion. Institutions must demonstrate “a commitment to educational improvement through ongoing attention to retention, persistence, and completion rates in its degree and certificate programs.” [2] This requires higher education institutions to set goals, gather information, act on the information and use best practices to enhance persistence.

A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows the total degree completion rates — including those who transfer and complete at a different institution than the one they initially enrolled in — are as follows:

  • Four-year private nonprofit: 71.5 percent
  • Four-year public: 60.6 percent
  • Four-year private for-profit: 42.8 percent
  • Two-year public: 36.3 percent [3]

There is room for improvement. Within these sectors, there is wild variation in completion rates. Among Illinois four-year institutions, we have a non-profit institution with a completion rate of 94 percent and another with 16 percent. Among the publics, we see rates as high as 83 percent and as low as 20 percent. The for-profit sector generally performs at a lower level but also has a wide variation, with a high of 70 percent and a low of 11 percent.

So, why is this an issue for those of us who serve adult students?

There is even more room for improvement in the persistence of adult students. In one National Center for Education Statistics study, 65 percent of adult students abandoned their goal of a bachelor’s degree after five years of study. Of that 65 percent, 42 percent dropped out completely and 23 percent shifted their goal downward to a certificate or associate’s degree. Only 35 percent of the adult students who had begun their degree actually graduated or were still enrolled after five years. [4]

Adult students have a unique set of challenges as well as strengths they bring to college upon returning to, or starting, their college career. To help adults persist, institutions must show a commitment to academic excellence, learner-centered teaching, flexibility, good course schedules, robust prior learning assessment (PLA) systems, good advising and coaching, strategic financial aid and effective orientation processes.

For more on these strategies to enhance persistence click here.

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[1] Michael Stratford, “Duncan Chides 1 Dupont,” Inside Higher Ed, September 23, 2013 Accessed at

[2] Higher Learning Commission, “The Criteria for Accreditation and Core Components,” 2013. Accessed at

[3] Doug Shapiro, Afet Dundar, Mary Ziskin et al, “Baccalaureate Attainment: A National View of the Postsecondary Outcomes of Students Who Transfer from Two-Year to Four-Year Institutions,” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, July 2013. Accessed

[4] National Center for Education Statistics, “Nontraditional Undergraduates: Trends in Enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and Persistence and Attainment Among 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students,” December 5, 1996. Accessed at

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Readers Comments

Chelsea Bellows 2013/10/24 at 1:25 pm

There is certainly a need to improve persistence. It’s shocking to see 65 percent of adult students abandon their goal of a bachelor’s degree after five years and many others downgrade their credentials to a certificate or diploma program. I would have loved to see Pearson go into more detail about the connection between the problem he identifies and proposed solutions to address it. For instance, at which point in the five-year timeline between enrolment and abandonment are adults most vulnerable and most likely to make that decision? Are there interventions institutions could stage at that point, and what might those look like?

Natalie MIller 2013/10/25 at 9:09 am

The issue of “downgrading” concerns me. It would be useful to know why these adult students pursued this type of decision. Was it more so because they felt they had gained the skills/knowledge needed without having to finish the degree? Or perhaps some left because they felt they couldn’t produce consistently high-quality postsecondary-level work, and would have benefited from remedial courses? Knowing some of these reasons might help us to identify supports/advice we could offer our adult students.

Also of concern is the perception some may have, perhaps, that a certificate or diploma is easier to obtain than a degree, which may be why so many are “downgrading.” Instead, we should do a better job of explaining the different purposes/uses of each type of credential so adult students can make a decision based on their needs rather than their (mis)perceptions.

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