The terms retention and persistence are significant words for higher education due in part to the press surrounding the number of students who drop out of school each year. For state schools this can mean a loss of funding. For small liberal arts institutions, the majority of which are tuition dependent, these words carry even more weight since even a single student loss can place a small institution into financial trouble. Indeed, predictions warn that “by 2017, the closure rate of small colleges is likely to triple from that of the past decade according to a report from Moody’s Investors Service” (Thomason, 2015). For continuing education units embedded in these liberal arts institutions, their program focus most often is on credit-bearing programs for non-traditional students. They are required to have a laser focus on retention and persistence as enrollment drivers for the institution.

In large continuing education units in both public and private institutions, there are often individuals whose responsibility is to focus on enrollment research and data management and who become, in essence, an internal institutional research office. However, the institutional research office in a small liberal arts institution typically reports directly to the provost and is focused only on the traditional-age student. Because the continuing education unit is small, without a person solely focused on research, the dean of the CE office often must manage the analysis of retention and persistence.

The majority of published statistics and reports on retention and persistence focus on first time students who show no previous college enrollment in the four years prior to the entering cohort year and have not previously completed a college degree (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2015). These statistics don’t include the many adult students who have transferred from a community college or who have left another university or college to come to a smaller liberal arts institution, and thus their use as a benchmark for continuing education units is limited.  There are some indicators that retention and overall success of the continuing education population may receive increased attention in the future. The Lumina Foundation’s “Goal 2025” —to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees to 60% by 2025—recognizes the critical role of adult learners in reaching this goal:  “[It is] unlikely the U.S. can grow the proportion of the labor force with postsecondary attainment by focusing primarily on recent high school graduates” (Zanville, 2013). Encouraging working adults with some college to return to school is considered critical to the college completion agenda. Until now, accreditors have only looked at outcomes for first time, full-time students. Yet it has been reported that the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) will require institutions in the future to provide data on retention and graduation rates for all students, including part-time adults.

In the article “Measuring the Success of Professional and Continuing Education Units” from the UPCEA publication Centennial Conversations, the following was discussed when schools were asked about their definition of retention:

[I] in a study by UPCEA and InsideTrack, when schools were asked to define retention for post-baccalaureate students, multiple definitions were offered (Fong and Jarrat 2013).  They are listed here along with the percentage of schools that noted the specific definition.

  • Enrollment in at least one course within a year: 36%
  • Enrollment in at least one course in consecutive terms: 26%
  • Enrollment combined with some measure of academic progress (course completion): 23%
  • Enrollment in at least one course at a specific point in time (census date): 13%
  • Other: 3% (Richardson, 2015)

This lack of a standard definition for retention is further exacerbated since 61% of those responding to the survey cited cultural resistance to measurement as the reason they don’t measure the key performance measures of retention and persistence. So, there are few statistics shared among continuing education units on the retention and persistence of adult undergraduate students.

Even without comparison data, in a small liberal arts institution, the dean must take the time to not just define the terms of retention and persistence but to also measure them, thus developing his or her own benchmarks for comparison. The following two cases from two different liberal arts institutions exemplify the process that deans in such schools are using to analyze their students’ quest for degree completion.


Queens University of Charlotte

The new dean arrived in July 2014 to this small private liberal arts institution as the founding dean of a new unit titled the Hayworth School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. Among the responsibilities of this unit are the admissions and advising for approximately 300 adult students who are returning to the college campus for an undergraduate degree. The new dean immediately focused on understanding the adult undergraduate student population. This was done with the hope of determining their enrollment patterns, motivation and persistence towards graduation.

The decision was made as a result of prior experience in continuing education to use the definitions for persistence and retention from a company with a long history in enrollment management, Noel-Levitz (now Ruffalo Noel Levitz) as a starting point. The definitions from Noel-Levitz are based on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS) at the National Center for Education Statistics.  The definitions offered below originated in a presentation by Noel-Levitz at a conference in 2008 at Stetson University.

Persistence is the enrollment headcount of any cohort compared to its headcount on its initial official census date. The goal is to measure the number of students who persist term to term and to completion.  Retention is the outcome of how many students remain enrolled from fall to fall. This number is typically derived from first-time, full-time traditional day students, but can be applied to any defined cohort (Voight and Hundrieser, 2008)

However, these definitions didn’t seem to go far enough in helping define the enrollment patterns for adult students since they were based on traditional-aged students. Thus, the dean recommended that the following definitions be used to better define the adult population at Queens:

  • Term persistence as a measurement is critical for the adult population. Term persistence is a comparison of the enrollment at the beginning of the term compared to the enrollment at the end of the term, especially important for the first term at the university. Adult students are quicker to make decisions to “just leave” and not return than traditional students who live on campus. In addition, adult students have situations that arise in their lives (work, family, transportation) that will cause them to leave without notifying administration of their decision in a timely fashion. In some cases the students will return to school the following semester. Thus, carefully watching this trend is necessary to help determine how we can better communicate policies and procedures for students who need to step out in a given semester.
  • Semester-to-semester persistence is the enrollment headcount of any cohort that persists semester to semester, identical to the Noel-Levitz definition of persistence. For adults, this headcount needs to include measurement in the summer term, because for part-time adult students, summer is often considered an integral part of the academic calendar.
  • Retention is based on the cohort model, with each start being measured against those that continue one year later. Thus measurements from fall to fall, spring to spring, and summer to summer will each need to be analyzed. Adult students start when they are ready, believing that their collegiate experience starts when they are prepared to start, not in accordance with a traditional fall start. Measuring only fall-to-fall starts seemed to be more relevant to traditional aged students and does not provide a full picture of the activity within the continuing education unit.


With these definitions in mind, here are the results of the research thus far.

Each semester (fall, spring, summer) Queens accepts three unique cohorts.

  1. Adult undergraduate students
    • Approximately 25-30% of new admits are full-time students, taking 12 or more credits each semester. They are highly motivated and often are career changers, taking time away from a full-time position to retool and gain their undergraduate degree. They take a combination of evening and daytime classes based on their home situation to accomplish their goal of an undergraduate degree.
    • The second subset are part-time students who are working full-time as they pursue their first undergraduate degree. Their persistence to degree completion is based on financial ability, family commitments, and work requirements. They are “fitting in” studies into their work-life balance. Most often these students are seen in the evenings after work two or three nights per week.
    • Within the adult undergraduate student cohort there are also second degree students who are seeking an additional specialty (most often interior design or music) while maintaining their full-time job. They are not necessarily in a hurry to finish their degree, taking one or two courses each semester.
  2. Non-degree seeking students
    • The second cohort consists of non-degree seeking students who are taking courses to transfer back to their “home” school (predominantly summer students) or taking prerequisite courses for entrance into a PA or other health-related program. This also includes students attending for the love of learning with no specific desire to obtain a degree. The majority of these students take one or two courses each semester and typically don’t enroll in more than two semesters.
  3. Pre-Nursing students
    • The third cohort consists of pre-nursing students who are attending to take the prerequisites for entrance into a nursing program. Often, they are not academically prepared for the rigors of chemistry and anatomy and physiology and many do not last more than one semester.


As a result of studying these different populations, both in terms of motivation and ability, the dean decided to look at the three populations separately for the purpose of measuring semester to semester and term persistence as well as retention.  Each population was defined as its own cohort for tracking purposes. This analysis began Fall 2014 and has continued into Spring 2015, Summer 2015, Fall 2015, and Spring 2016.

The first table shows the persistence and retention combined results for the three adult undergraduate student cohorts that started in 2014-2015.


Table 1: Persistence and Retention for Three Adult Undergraduate Student Cohorts

Number initially enrolled Persistence in first semester % enrolled the following semester % Retention (based on number enrolled 1 year later)
Fall 2014 61 93.44% 85.25% 70.49%
Spring 2015* 35 88.57% 32.43% 45.7%
Summer 2015 10 100% 90% 60%


*The percentage of the semester-to-semester persistence is very small from spring to summer, but that seems to be a direct issue with summer enrollment, since 60% of the original cohort returned in fall 2015. Apparently, a number of spring admits took the summer off.


The second table shows persistence and retention of non-degree students during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Table 2: Persistence and Retention for Non-Degree Students

Number initially enrolled Persistence in first semester % enrolled the following semester % Retention (based on number enrolled 1 year later)
Fall 2014 26 88% 36% 0.00%
Spring 2015* 13 69.23% 23.08% 7.69%
Summer 2015 23 95.65% 4.55% 0.00%


The final table shows persistence and retention for the pre-nursing cohort during the 2014-205 academic year.

Table 3: Persistence and Retention for Pre-Nursing Cohort

Number initially enrolled Persistence in first semester % enrolled the following semester % Retention (based on number enrolled 1 year later)
Fall 2014 21 71.43% 57.14% 14.28%
Spring 2015* 9 88.89% 55.56% 33.33%
Summer 2015 8 100.0% 50.0% 37.5%


When analyzed, the non-degree students demonstrated, as expected, an excellent persistence rate (over 80%) but a low retention rate (below 10%). The pre-nursing students showed some of the lowest persistence rates as compared to non-degree students and other degree seeking majors and also an extremely low retention rate. What did become evident, however, is that approximately 20% of all pre-nursing students move forward with acceptance into the actual nursing degree.

Analysis of these statistics began to aid in a better understanding of the adult population at Queens. For purposes of persistence and retention, the adult degree-seeking undergraduate student is key to the success of the institution because these individuals outperform non-degree and pre-nursing students in the areas of retention and persistence. Thus, marketing and admissions should continue to focus their efforts on recruiting these types of students. Although both non-degree and pre-nursing students fill seats, caution on increasing those numbers must be exercised since few stay with Queens longer than one year.  At the same time, additional research into pre-nursing students who succeed needs to focus on what qualities they exemplify to help us better understand how to market to that specific sub-group.

Currently, a deeper dive is occurring into the data of the adult undergraduate student to better understand progression towards degree completion.  This includes analyzing their credit hour enrollment patterns, as compared to their credit hour completion, and the average length of time spent at the institution.  These results will hopefully provide a better forecast of enrollment based on the current student body.


Providence College in Rhode Island

The experience for the Dean of the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at Providence College (PC) parallels that of her colleague at Queens University in several ways. SCE’s dean arrived in June 2009, after the school had been without a dean for five years. SCE primarily serves part-time, working adult students who are completing an undergraduate degree; the remainder are non-degree students, a subset of whom are pursuing a certificate. Admission into associate and bachelor’s degree or certificate programs is on a rolling basis and very flexible; students may choose to postpone enrollment for up to one year without reapplying. As will be seen below, this can prove to be a challenge when assigning students to cohorts for the purposes of measuring retention.

Upon arrival at PC, SCE’s dean faced declining enrollments and very limited data. The dean focused not only on revamping the school’s marketing and recruiting of new students, but on gaining insight into the enrollment history and patterns of current students. The dean approached PC’s Office of Institutional Research (IR) to discuss how to measure retention in SCE. As with other continuing university units, retention had previously been reported only for full-time, traditional students at PC.

Fortunately—and despite obstacles—the Assistant Director of IR welcomed the challenge of addressing retention among adult learners. The director met frequently with the dean and developed definitions and a framework for retention that were essential to establish at the onset of the project and that made sense for the institution. The lack of a standard, generally agreed upon definition for retention has been discussed above, and is an important goal for the continuing education community. However, where possible, leaders must work closely with staff at their institutions to arrive at definitions and procedures that fit within the broader reporting procedures of their schools.

At PC, several decisions were faced including: (1) which students to include (degree-seeking only? degree and non-degree?); (2) how to define retention; and (3) how to assign them to cohorts, a situation that is unique to the continuing education population. While traditional students are predictable in their enrollment patterns and readily assigned to cohorts—they apply and are accepted for fall, typically deposit by the preceding May, and show up for class in late August or September—continuing education students are moving targets. Their start dates and admit dates may not coincide. They may enroll in classes before applying to a degree program, apply and get admitted but postpone enrolling in classes, or apply and enroll, and then stop out for a period of time.

It is worth spending time reviewing the decision-making process at PC in order to inform readers about the considerations they may need to make before issues like persistence and retention can be examined.

  1. PC chose to examine retention for the full academic year. As discussed below, students are assigned to a cohort for an academic year if they begin in the fall, winter, spring or either of the two summer terms of that year (Year 1). PC measured first-year retention based on whether students enrolled at any time (fall, winter, spring or summer) during the following academic year (Year 2). PC felt this approach better suited adult students’ patterns of enrollment, as opposed to measuring fall to fall, spring to spring, or summer to summer enrollments.
  2. While SCE serves a variety of populations, it was decided to focus on bachelor’s degree-seeking This group comprises the majority of SCE’s student body and has the strongest commitment toward completing their education.
  3. IR had to create the cohorts, which were established for the full academic year based on the college’s official “Closing Freeze Data” and include any bachelor’s degree-seeking students who began in the fall, winter, spring, or either of the two summer terms.
  4. Since the focus was on degree-seeking students only, it made sense to assign them to cohorts based on the date they were accepted into a BA or BS degree program instead of when they first started taking classes. However, it was not sufficient to simply use their “Admit Term” for the academic year. As mentioned above, SCE students may be admitted into a degree program for a given semester or term and then not choose to register. It was therefore necessary to further define a “True Admit Term.”  For the purpose of creating cohorts, PC looked at both when students were admitted into a bachelor’s degree program and their first registration term (or the term they changed to degree-seeking status) to define their “True Admit Term.

This process involved a great deal of data cleanup by IR in the early stages of the project. For each cohort, it was necessary to verify when degree-seeking students’ first registration term was and/or when they made a change to a degree-seeking undergraduate program. Students who did not meet the criteria were removed.

Not surprisingly, when assigning students to cohorts, several had already taken classes in SCE. If such students move from undergraduate non-degree to undergraduate degree-seeking status in SCE, they are given a new admit term reflecting the term the change that occurred. If they were already in an undergraduate degree program and made “inactive” (because more than one year elapsed since their last registration), they are not given a new admit term when they return; they remain part of their initial cohort group.

IR was able to establish cohorts going back to 2006. SCE’s retention results for cohorts 2006-2007 through 2014-2015 are shown in this table:

Table 4: School of Continuing Education (SCE) Retention Results

Cohort Total Cohort (New Students in Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer I and II) 1st Year Retention: Total Cohort Students Actively Enrolled at Any Time During the Following Academic Year 1st Year Retention Rates: % of Students from Original Cohort who Returned at Any Time During the Following Academic Year
AY 06-07 54 44 81.5%
AY 07-08 51 43 84.3%
AY 08-09 51 37 72.5%
AY 09-10 61 44 72.1%
AY 10-11 87 59 67.8%
AY 11-12 90 71 78.9%
AY 12-13 71 56 78.9%
AY 13-14 49 35 71.4%
AY 14-15 52 N/A N/A


SCE’s average first-year retention rate is 75.9%. Readers should be cautioned against comparing continuing education retention rates with those for traditional undergraduate populations, especially those at selective private liberal arts colleges, where rates can easily exceed 90%. Those working in continuing education are all too familiar with the peripatetic nature of continuing education students and the many ways their lives can interfere with their studies.

PC also studies graduation rates and has observed a marked drop-off between students’ second-year enrollment and graduation. This is an area being looked into further in order to more fully understand the continued challenges and obstacles students face on the way to completion. By identifying cohorts, the administration can more readily track students and intervene where necessary.  For example, modelled after an initiative at James Madison University, SCE recently launched a “Return to PC” initiative, inviting students in good standing who had stopped out for more than a year to re-enroll in SCE.

While the academic year retention model provides several years’ worth of data to compare, these findings are not informative about students’ current behavior.  The dean does not have retention data for any cohort until the close of the subsequent academic year. For example, the table above indicates an absence of data for the 2014-15 cohort, which will be available after the official freeze date in the fall of 2016.  The dean is working with IR to gain access to more real-time data on cohorts, in order to track them throughout the year instead of waiting for freeze data.

The dean and the team at PC have used the cohorts to understand enrollment trends and to create student profile data, including information on age, gender, ethnicity, and transfer credits.  The plan is to use a cohort approach to better understand the non-degree population in the future.

Until recently, the area of persistence was handled primarily by advisers, who monitor semester-to-semester enrollments and reach out to students who fail to register for a following term. SCE is working on formalizing data-gathering and reporting on persistence.


Lessons Learned

Two small liberal arts continuing education administrators understood the necessity of looking at retention and persistence, and each took a different path towards measurement.  And yet some of the lessons learned are similar.

  1. Both realized that utilizing a cohort concept would best define their students and make the measurement consistent, thus providing them the ability to compare statistics over time.
  2. Defining retention and persistence terminology is a key component of the process.
  3. Determining which student groups to include in the process is also critical because each continuing education unit has a variety of student types (degree, non-degree) that enroll in that unit.
  4. Determining who in the institution would be involved in the measurement process was different for each unit, and yet important when it comes to ensuring that the correct data set is used.
  5. Both discovered that the processing of data takes time and thus may not provide timely information that can be used for current day decision making. However, the lack of measurement makes it even more difficult to make appropriate decisions about resources and services.
  6. Both institutions realized that retention and persistence data is not enough and that graduation data must also be measured and utilized.



In an article published in Diversity & Democracy, David Scobey calls the nontraditional student the “marginalized majority,” providing statistics from NCES that show that “only 26 percent of college students fit the conventional profile of a recent high school graduate who is financially dependent and enrolled full time in a two-or four-year institution” (2016). Nontraditional students are now the bulk of college students, and yet we continue to count “graduation rates based on first-time, full-time students” (Scobey, 2016), and we continue to collect retention and persistence data in the same way.

We too often ignore the fact that nontraditional students are looking for new models of engagement that provide them flexibility of education, enabling them to meet their needs as parents, spouses, and employees. In the process of considering change, higher education must also consider how we will measure retention and persistence with a group of students who face job, family, housing, health care, transportation, and debt pressures unlike their traditional counterparts.

The measurements completed by the two institutions in this case study needed to be adjusted for adult students who move in and out of higher education.  We should not use the traditionally defined concepts of retention and persistence. Rather, we must develop standards that leaders of continuing education can use so that we can have better benchmarks our success.

We hope that our peers will join us in this discussion of retention and persistence so that we can recommend the right solutions and not wait for definitions and forms of measurement to be defined for us.


Fain, P.  (2012, 11 July). Where Are All the Adults. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from


National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2015, 22 April). Snapshot Report – Persistence-Retention. National Student Clearinghouse. Retrieved from

Richardson, E. (2015). Measuring the Success of Professional and Continuing Education Units. Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing and Online Education. Washington, DC: University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

Scobey, D. (2016). Marginalized Majority: Nontraditional Students and the Equity Imperative. Diversity & Democracy, 19 (1). Retrieved from

Thomason, A. (2015, September 25). Small Colleges’ Closure Rate Could Triple by 2017, Moody’s Says [blog post]. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Voigt, L. & Hundrieser, J. (2008, November). Student Success, Retention, and Graduation: Definitions, Theories, Practices, Patterns, and Trends. Retrieved from,%20Retention,%20and%20Graduation-%20Definitions,%20Theories,%20Practices,%20Patterns,%20and%20Trends.pdf

Zanville, H. (2013, August 23). Adult Learners and the Completion Agenda. Lumina Foundation. Retrieved from



Janet Castleman, Ph.D., has served as dean of the School of Continuing Education in Providence RI since 2009. She earned her doctorate in Psychology from the Catholic University of America and has enjoyed a career in adult higher education for over 20 years.

Emily Richardson, Ed.D., is currently the dean of the Hayworth School of Graduate & Continuing Studies at Queens University of Charlotte, where she has worked since 2014.  Prior to that she held positions in adult higher education at Stetson University in Florida and Widener University in Chester, PA.  She has been an active member of UPCEA, on the board of directors, as regional chair and as a founding committee member for the Small and Specialized School Network.