Percentage of students beginning postsecondary at a North Carolina institution and continue to a second year of enrollment at any postsecondary institution

* Demographic group segmentation not available for this indicator

Last updated: 2022

= Top southern state :

only available for totals, not available for all indicators

Percent of first-year students beginning postsecondary at a North Carolina institution who are still enrolled in any postsecondary program one year later.

The persistence rate is a more complete metric of whether students are continuing their postsecondary enrollments than the retention rate, which measures the share of students who are enrolled at the same postsecondary institution one year later.

Persistence rates measure how well students are continuing in their education; retention rates measure how well institutions retain their first-year students.

North Carolina’s first-year persistence rate was 75%, placing our state 31st among all states and sixth among southern states in 2022. The District of Columbia had the highest first-year persistence rate overall (92%).

By 2030, the goal is to have 80% of North Carolina’s first-year undergraduate students persist to their second year. This goal was set by the myFutureNC Commission.

Initial enrollment in a postsecondary program is just the first step toward the goal of postsecondary degree or certificate attainment. Following enrollment, students must continue their enrollment to degree completion, typically referred to as persistence. First-year persistence rates are a key indicator, as the greatest share of postsecondary dropouts occur during the first year than any other time.

Persistence to degree completion is a challenge for both individual students and the institutions they are attending, and overall patterns of persistence and retention can amplify and exacerbate inequalities shown in college access.

At the state level, increases in persistence rates increase the likelihood of degree completions. Higher persistence rates may mean that students are better prepared in high school for postsecondary programs.

Meeting the 2030 Goal

North Carolina needs 3,372 more first-year students to continue to their second year of postsecondary to meet the statewide first-year persistence rate goal.

Line chart showing percentage of first-year postsecondary students who continue to a second year, NC vs US, over the time period 2010-2022

The first-year persistence rate of North Carolina undergraduates has consistently been above the 2010 rate. In 2010, North Carolina’s first-year persistence rate was 74%, ranking 24th among the states. From 2010 to 2021, the state’s first-year persistence rate climbed fairly consistently, reaching 79% in 2021. However, in 2022, the state’s first-year persistence rate dropped back to 75%, and North Carolina’s state rank dropped to 31.

There are well-documented differences in student persistence and retention by:

  • type of program (two-year versus four-year);
  • institutional sector (public versus private);
  • institutional selectivity and academic readiness;
  • intensity of attendance (full time versus part time); and
  • the sociodemographic characteristics of the student and their family.

Line chart showing percentage of first-year postsecondary students who continue to a second year, NC vs US, over the time period 2010-2022These characteristics are often interrelated. For example, economic disadvantage is associated with lower academic readiness and such students are more likely to enroll part-time or at less selective institutions. These students may be more likely to face academic or financial challenges during their first year, resulting in lower overall persistence.

Students who enter college at ages 20 or younger consistently have higher persistence rates than students who enter at older ages. Although first-year persistence rates declined for all ages between 2021 and 2022, 79% of students who entered college at ages 20 and younger continued to a second year of college, compared to 42% of students who entered between ages 21 and 24 (down from 51% in 2021 – the biggest drop of any age group), and 48% of students who entered college at ages 25 or older.

Research on the first-year persistence rates of North Carolina high school graduates is consistent with past research using national samples. Overall persistence was higher among:

  • students who first enrolled at a four-year institution;
  • students with full-time enrollment in their first semester;
  • more academically prepared students, as measured by the number of ACT benchmarks met;
  • more economically advantaged students, as measured by free- and reduced-price lunch eligibility;
  • students from the North Central prosperity zone (Triangle area);
  • female students; and
  • Asian and white students

Where does the data for the First-Year Persistence Rate come from?

The data for first-year persistence by state was downloaded from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

The NSC is a nonprofit organization that provides postsecondary enrollment data and verification for more than 3,750 colleges and universities in the United States.

How was the data calculated?

This was a direct download from the NSC Research Center.

Who is included?

The first-year persistence rate is limited to first-time fall enrollments. First-time means that students were not previously enrolled in college and had not previously completed a degree or a certificate. Former dual enrollment students are included if “their enrollment or degree record prior to the entering cohort year was before the student turned 18 years old.” Fall enrollment means an enrollment term that began between August 1 and October 31. Note that the first-year persistence rates here differ from the county profiles as students can be of any age when they enroll whereas on the county profiles students are defined as high school graduates who enroll in college within 12 months of their high school graduation date and continue to their second year of college.

Who isn’t included?

Collectively, the institutions covered by the NSC data serve 97% of all postsecondary students nationwide and 98% of students in North Carolina. The NSC data does not cover all institutional sectors equally, however, and has lower coverage rates of for-profit institutions. More detail on NSC coverage is available here.

Former dual enrollment students will be excluded if their enrollment or degree record prior to the entering cohort year was after they turned 18 years old.

Students who begin postsecondary before August 1 or after October 31 are excluded from the analysis.

The data used in the development of this indicator is derived from administrative records and is subject to non-sampling error.

Who is working on this in NC?

Help improve this section

If you know of an organization that is working on this topic in NC, please let us know on the feedback form.

NC-focused, state-level dashboards

Name: UNC System Dashboards


About: The UNC Data Dashboard is an interactive, online database that gives students, parents, policymakers and taxpayers expanded access to detailed system data on selected core measures.

Name: NCCCS Dashboards


About: The North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) dashboards allow users to explore and interact with NCCCS data by theme. The dashboards are designed to help colleges access the data and information needed to facilitate institutional effectiveness and program improvement. Dashboards include system and college-level data views, disaggregations, historical trends, and peer comparisons.

Further research and literature

Burrus, J., Elliott, D., Brenneman, M., Markle, R., Carney, L., Moore, G., Betancourt, A., et al. (2013). Putting and Keeping Students on Track: Toward a Comprehensive Model of College Persistence and Goal Attainment. Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Crissman Ishler, J. L., & Upcraft, M. L. (2005). The keys to first-year student persistence27-46. In Upcraft, Gardner, & Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mattern, K. D., Marini, J. P., & Shaw, E. J. (2015). Identification of multiple nonreturner profiles to inform the development of targeted college retention interventions. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice17(1), 18–43.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2019). Persistence & Retention – 2019. Herndon, VA: NSC Research Center.

Ross, T., Kena, G., Rathbun, A., Kewal Ramani, A., Zhang, J., Kristapovich, P., & Manning, E. (2012). Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study (NCES 2012-046). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Tippett, R., & Kahn, N. (2018). Postsecondary Persistence Report: 2009-2016 North Carolina Public High School Graduates. Raleigh, NC: myFutureNC.


What is the difference between retention rates and persistence rates?

Retention and persistence are both metrics that capture a student’s progress through postsecondary:

  • Institutions retain. Retention rates capture the share of students who continue enrollment within the same higher education institution or system.
  • Individuals persist. Persistence rates capture the share of students who continue enrollment at any higher education institution in the following year, even if this is a different institution or system than the one at which the student initially enrolled.

Because retention rates are limited to progress within the same initial institution, they are lower than persistence rates.

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