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Nearly 76% of the 2.4 million U.S. students who started college in fall 2021 returned for their second year, as both retention and “persistence” rates continue to rebound since the pandemic, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The study measured both retention and persistence rates of first-year students beginning postsecondary education. The persistence rate captures the percentage of students who return to college at any higher education institution for their second year, while the retention rate represents the percentage of students who return to the same institution.

In New Jersey, the persistence rate was 80.4% for the cohort of students who entered college in the fall of 2021, nearly the same as it had been in 2018 (80.5%) before the pandemic. The persistence rate had dropped to 77.1% for the cohort that started college in 2019 and was most impacted by the pandemic that began a few months later in early 2020.

There were 58,703 students who entered college in New Jersey in the fall of 2019 but only 51,220 in the fall of 2020. In 2021, the New Jersey student count was 51,626 with a persistence rate of 80.4% and a retention rate of 73.1%.

Nationwide, the persistence rate increased 0.9 percentage points to 75.7% for all college students, both full-time and part-time, among the 2021 cohort that continued their education at any institution in the fall of 2022.  The retention rate of students returning to the same school where they started was 67.2%

This marks a return to the national persistence levels that were seen for all students in 2016 (75.7%); 2017 (75.6%); and 2018 (75.8%).  The persistence rate had dropped to 73.8% for the 2019 cohort most impacted by the pandemic and started to trend upward again in 2020 (74.8%).

The nationwide college retention rate measuring students who re-enrolled at the same college where they began had plummeted to 66.1% for the fall 2019 cohort but began rebounding to 66.3% for the 2020 cohort and 67.2% for the 2021 cohort.  Prior to the pandemic the retention rate was 66.9% for the 2018 cohort of incoming students.

More findings from the latest “Persistence and Retention” report series released by the NSCRC on July 27 can be found here.