Big setback for higher ed as transfer enrollments plummet 7%

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, mobility among institutions has decreased more than 15% for students.

What appeared to be a positive trend during the fall—transfer enrollment was nearly level across higher education—has sustained another downturn as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect student mobility.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported Tuesday that undergraduate transfer enrollment overall fell 6.9% this spring year over year, putting this important pathway to completion now 16% behind pre-pandemic numbers. A big piece of that decline was the surprising plummet among upward transfers—those shifting from two-year to four-year institutions—which saw an 11.6% setback.

“This constriction of a key path to bachelor’s degree attainment is very concerning,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Lower-income students seeking more-affordable degree options are being squeezed out.”

The Clearinghouse believes that the significant drop in students attending community colleges is partly to blame but only a sliver of the story. There were almost no positives to note from the COVID-19: Transfer, Mobility, and Progress report, other than lateral transfers among four-year institutions growing another 5% on the heels of a 9% increase last fall. It is an outlier that even Clearinghouse can’t explain, especially against the backdrop of so much negative data. But even that comes with a caveat: While very competitive and competitive institutions continue to post big upward transfer increases, highly selective ones surprisingly saw a 12.5% drop.

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The transfer report is part of a series issued by the Clearinghouse throughout the year, and with nearly 90% of institutions reporting covering 11.2 million students, it provides strong indications of the opportunities available in higher ed … or lack thereof:

  • Continuing and returning transfer numbers, for example, were all down sharply, as were all of the individual student demographic groups, reversing gains made in 2021.
  • Women, Asian and Latinx students and those over 30 had all gotten nice bumps of between 2.5% and 3.2% last spring, but all of those fell by double digits this year.
  • White students have been the least likely to initiate transfers since the start of the pandemic at -19.4%, followed by Native Americans at -18.6%, though all ethnic groups are down by more than 15%.
  • The 18-to-20-year-old student group was the lone age bracket to show positive numbers among all transfers, increasing by 3%. The Clearinghouse noted that was likely due to students returning from stop-outs, which were up more than 14%. The 25-29 group saw the steepest declines at more than 16%.

Two areas that showed slight improvements but were still down from 2021 figures were two-year lateral transfers and reverse transfers. Moves of students from one two-year college to another were down 11.1% (they were down 13.8% last spring), while those going from four-year to two-year institutions fell by 4.4% (which bettered last spring’s total by nearly 13%).

Enrollments of continuing transfer students were less likely at private nonprofits (-9.7%) than at public four-year institutions (-5.4%) and notably at for-profit institutions, which actually saw a 7.8% gain. Returning transfer enrollments were down across the board, but especially at private nonprofits (-9.5%) and community colleges (-11.4%).

Online institutions saw nice gains of more than 10% among continuing transfer students while seeing just slight declines among returning transfers.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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