Often used interchangeably, student persistence and student retention are easy to get confused. They both focus on the success and outcomes of college students. And both are key factors that can help make or break the health of an academic institution.

We enlisted two higher education experts to clarify these concepts. Hear what they have to say about how you can sustain both to help meet your institutional goals.

Persistence vs. retention: Understanding the difference

Student persistence and student retention are often commonly confused terms — and understandably so. They are definitely similar, but with some slight differences.

“There is a small but important distinction. Retention is a broader measurement that looks at whether students are enrolling in classes term over term,” explains Jonathan Kinsey, instructional designer at Collegis Education. “Student persistence measures the student’s activity and engagement.”

To put it simply, student persistence is something the student does in order to continue in their studies at any institution. On the other hand, student retention is something the institution does in order to move the student closer to graduation. The most recent data from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports a 75.7% first-year persistent rate for students who started college in fall 2021, and a 67.2% retention rate.

To improve student retention at your institution, you may leverage a writing center, provide online coaching, and other student resources in order to help a student cross that metaphorical finish line, according to Tim Loatman, director of academic services at Collegis Education.

Student retention is a passive measurement of whether a student hangs around, as Kinsey puts it. But he acknowledges that strengthening persistence requires more thoughtful planning on the institution’s side.

Designing and creating a course with persistence in mind involves taking an active role in understanding what might make a student want to continue progressing along their learning path.

Jonathan Kinsey

Now let’s take a closer look at some important aspects influencing each.

4 Factors influencing college persistence

While student persistence is ultimately in the hands of the students themselves, there are many things colleges can do to help prioritize it. Consider the following factors.

1. Consistent student experiences

One overlooked factor that can negatively affect student persistence is an inconsistency in student experiences. This is especially true for online learning. Schools can say they provide students with what they need to succeed academically, but if those resources aren’t being utilized or embraced by students, it’s not effective.

“Institutions invest a lot of time and money into the best things but rarely invest equal energy into making sure those things are used to benefit the student experience,” Kinsey says. He adds that something shiny and fancy is no good if it doesn’t provide a good user experience for students. A simple, but functional, solution is much more effective.

Rethink Student Experience

Find missed opportunities to improve engagement by downloading our infographic “Rethinking the Student Experience: From First Click to Last Course.”

2. Meeting students where they are

In order for students to persist, school support needs to be “just in time,” according to Loatman. In other words, schools need to meet students exactly where they are. “While orientations and other student preparatory strategies have their value, students are typically not focused on academic challenges until they are right upon them,” Loatman shares.

For instance, student coaches can be a successful tool for students to use because they are often leveraged when the students have papers due the next day. Timing and accessibility are key to making these resources convenient and, thus, effective.

3. Simple but effective tools

For students enrolled in online courses, it’s essential that the tools and platform are practical and straightforward in order to support learning. Elaborate tools can interfere with the learning process. And if tools get in the way of learning, they defeat their purpose.

“Students want to feel unencumbered by the tools given to them and institutions need to think more about how they can create a simple, direct path to success,” Kinsey says.

4. Sense of community belonging

If you’re focusing on student persistence, ensure that students fit into the learning community around them.

Students who feel like they are part of a learning community are much more likely to continue on in their education journey.Your Content Goes Here

Jonathan Kinsey

So, how can a school ensure their students are fitting in and feeling like they belong? The answer lies in the classroom, whether residential or online. More specifically, it comes from your faculty.

“It all starts with the instructor,” Kinsey explains. “Engagement from the top validates participation from the bottom. An instructor who is active in the course gives students a reason to check in more than once a week, it gives them a sense of place even as they might be learning from a distance.”

4 Factors influencing student retention

Much research has gone into student retention, and many elements influence whether a student makes it to graduation or not. Here are a few of the most critical factors pertaining to student retention.

1. Faculty support

Students who believe their instructors can adequately prepare them to succeed in the classroom experience higher rates of retention.

“An engaged faculty member does about as much for the course as anything,” Kinsey says. “Students want to know that they are being heard, they want to know that on the other side of their work is a human being.”

Stronger retention rates are also tied to curriculum and training that can be directly applied to the workplace. “Students are seeking differentiated instruction, a place to discuss ideas and real-world assessment and application,” Kinsey adds.

2. Academic and cognitive skills

Students lacking the academic skills necessary to keep up at the collegiate level can negatively affect retention rates. Similarly, students lacking the critical thinking, logic and analysis needed in their courses are also at risk of dropping out.

This is where student resources become critical. Writing centers, academic tutors, accessible faculty and other support services can help bridge the gap and improve student retention.

3. Finances

College is a significant financial decision for students to make, and the cost of college definitely affects student retention rates. A student’s ability to afford classes, or their confidence in the return on their investment, can play a large role in student retention rates.

If you’re motivated to progress in this area, there are several alternative tuition pricing strategies you could consider that may help ease the financial burden on students, thus positively affecting student retention.

4. Community involvement

Students who are actively involved in extracurricular activities or the student community tend to experience better retention rates. Clubs, sports, study groups, school spirit — all of these can factor into a student’s feeling of community belonging, which can help them stay engaged in school and reach graduation.

Support your students from beginning to end

There are subtle differences in college persistence versus retention, but both are equally important from an institutional standpoint. Following this expert advice can help your institution thrive in both areas.

Persistence and retention in online education is just as important (if not more.)

Learn how to create a retention strategy for your school that keeps students engaged from day one. Download our ebook, “Factors and Strategies for Higher Ed Student Retention.”

Author: Kristina Ericksen

Kristina Ericksen is a content writer with four years of experience writing for higher education. She holds an English degree from Gustavus Adolphus College.