Colleges lost nearly 300,000 transfers during first two years of COVID-19 pandemic

New National Clearinghouse Research report shows the difficulties colleges are having in strengthening mobility.
By: | September 13, 2022
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The number of transfer students dropped by nearly 300,000 students, or 13.5%, during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The rate of decline in 2021 was less than in 2020, hinting that key mobility pathways for many students may be opening up again, though nearly all types of transfers have struggled to get back to pre-pandemic levels. Year over year, higher education lost 97,000 transfers, about half as many as the previous year.

“I hope we can all acknowledge transferring during a pandemic is hard,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the Clearinghouse Research Center. “You’ve got two different institutions to deal with, navigating two sets of all the shifting pandemic policies on top of all the transfer policies, and all without the benefit of in-person advisors, or other campus-based support networks that students would normally have access to. In some ways, it’s not surprising that we saw transfer enrollments fall by almost 14% in the last two years.”

Were financial hardships and other effects from the pandemic to blame for the lack of transfers? Did too many barriers prevent students from shifting from one institution to another? Or did a perceived lack of value in higher education dissuade students? The fact that transfer numbers into four-year institutions nosedived last year was not insignificant.

“That suggests that students were increasingly questioning their goals or plans to attain a four-year degree in the first place,” Shapiro said. “I think a lot of that had to do with perceptions of rising costs, perceptions of increased burdens of student debt and also a stronger labor market, even for unskilled workers. That led a lot of students to rethink, ‘is this really the right time to go to a four-year college?’ ”

It wasn’t just those attempts at transfers that were a problem. It was that even those that did complete them also lost ground during the two-year stretch.

“It is particularly troubling that the persistence rates of those staying enrolled just one term after transferring are also declining,” Shapiro said. “You would think that those who had managed to transfer in times like this would have to be among the most determined [to persist]. These results should be a wake-up call to colleges, that transfer-in students really need support after transfer to help them stay on track.”

The most bizarre outlier was that upward transfer rate, which worsened from 2020 to 2021, falling 7.5% compared with 2.3% the year prior.

“These are critical access pathways to bachelor’s degree attainment for low-income students who would not otherwise be able to afford the higher costs of four-year schools,” Shapiro said. “A good portion of the drop is clearly due to the simple fact of having fewer students enrolled at community colleges, which is drying up the pool of eligible transfer students. This effect of community college declines, especially community college freshmen, is likely to persist for some time.”

A positive sign was that transfers in the opposite direction – four years to two years – improved by 14%, though they were still down 2% in 2021.

“In normal times, we consider these pathways to be backstops to students at risk of dropping out,” he said. “They enable students to change institutions as their needs and aspirations change, and the ability to adapt. Students who feel trapped in programs that no longer meet their needs are more likely to stop out or drop out altogether.”

Inside the numbers

The clearinghouse report, the ninth in a series, covers about two million transfer students at 90% of degree-granting institutions. As with the previous iterations, there were very few good numbers overall. Each subgroup of transfers sustained losses during the two years of the pandemic:

  • White students down 16.4%
  • Black students down 16.4%
  • Native American students down 15.6%
  • Rural institutions down 11.4%
  • Non-rural institutions down 15.4%
  • Hispanic-serving Institutions down 16.9%

And the disparities were felt across all transfer types:

  • Upward transfers down 9.7%
  • Reverse transfers down 18%
  • Lateral transfers at 2-year institutions down 21.3%
  • Lateral transfers at 4-year institutions down 7.6%

Students most impacted were those in the over-20 age group. According to the clearinghouse, their declines were double those of 18- and 19-year-olds, who comprised 30% of all transfers. (The lone gainer was only the 2021 numbers from lateral students moving among four-year institutions, which was up 0.3% ). A comeback of sorts from younger students could be a good indicator that positive change is on the way.

“As the pandemic is lingering, some students are able to cope with that in terms of their education planning,” said Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications for the clearinghouse. “What we’re seeing in Year 2 is the youngest traditional student population starting to show signs of recovery.”

Still, until those numbers fully reach 2019 levels, it will be difficult to remain fully upbeat about transfers.

“Many pandemic impacts will take years to work their way through the system, continuing to alter learners’ educational trajectories and institutions’ enrollment pipelines long after the pandemic ends,” Shapiro said. “Today’s missing transfer students will too often become tomorrow’s missing graduates unless educators and policymakers respond quickly with interventions tailored to the needs of affected learners.”