Transfer rates drop, continue to mirror enrollment declines

Photo: Matthew Dembicki

Far fewer college students transferred to other institutions over the past year mainly a result of declining college enrollments prompted by the pandemic, and community college students again saw the biggest drops, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

The center on Monday released new research showing overall transfer enrollment is down -7.9% this spring, nearly four times more than last spring, which saw a -2.1% decline. Transfer enrollment declines are especially steep in the community college sector, which saw a -15.2% drop. Transfer enrollments at public four-year colleges remain stable compared to last spring.

Upward transfers were the only transfer path to see increases this spring over pre-pandemic levels, the report said. Community college students transferring to a four-year institution without first earning an associate degree increased 7.4% this spring, representing an 11.4-percentage swing from last year’s drop of -4.1%.

Both reverse and lateral transfers plummeted -21% and -9.2%, respectively.

Upward transfers from two- to four-year colleges accounted for about half of all transfers, the center said. Lateral transfers, especially among community colleges, represented about 44% of all types of transfers.

“Transfer enrollment declines this spring are largely attributable to lower enrollment levels last fall and a higher fall-to-spring attrition rate during Covid-19,” Doug Shapiro, NSC Center executive director, said in a release. “As the pandemic continues to shift the postsecondary landscape, colleges and universities must address the needs of the students who are most impacted.”

The center noted that even prior to the pandemic, many students seeking to transfer faced challenges with the complexities of the process. The pandemic, and its resulting economic and health challenges, exacerbated the situation.

Students of color, lower-income students and men experienced the largest changes in the transfer figures — which is similar to what these groups of students have seen in their overall enrollment data for fall and spring.

The report shows that returning students — those who left college and have now returned — also saw decreases in transfers. Transfer enrollment among returning students fell nearly -5% overall, propelled by community colleges.

It appears returning students — especially four-year college students — are more likely to go to their previous institutions (61%), up 1.8 percentage points from last year. A majority of returning transfer students reenrolled this spring in community colleges (55%).

The center’s report offers a first look into the spring 2021 student transfer patterns as of February 25. It includes data on 8.8 million undergraduate students, including 532,000 transfer students. The center will update the preliminary results as it receives more data this spring. The next report is expected in May.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.