Community college students hit an academic ceiling, report finds

In the fall of 2022, upward transfers declined 11% at suburban community colleges and 8.8% at those in urban areas, compared to a respective 3.3% and 0.7% drop in the fall of 2019.

Student enrollment in colleges and universities took a toll after the pandemic, but a comeback may be imminent. Upward transfer students from two-year colleges to four-year institutions, however, continue to lag, with a 7.5% drop from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022, totaling a 14.5% decline since the fall of 2020, a semester smack-dab in the middle of the pandemic, according to a new study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Reverse transfers actually increased, as well as lateral transfers from four-year and two-year schools.

The numbers are more discouraging when you take into account the selectivity of a school. “Very competitive schools” experienced an 8.5% decline in upward transfer enrollment in the fall of 2022 and 18.9% since the fall of 2020. For “highly selective schools”: 13.4% in fall 2022 and 20.8% since fall 2020.

While rates for urban and suburban community college students transferring to more prestigious universities were declining before 2020, the pandemic exacerbated the issue. In the fall of 2022, upward transfers declined by 11% at suburban community colleges and 8.8% for urban ones, compared to respective 3.3% and 0.7% drops in the fall of 2019. Ironically enough, community colleges that primarily focus on high transfer programs saw the worst decline in fall 2022 upward transfer numbers compared to high vocational focus community colleges, whose numbers increased by 0.7%.

In-state upward transfers waned compared to out-of-state upward transfers on a national level, continuing to fall 19.5% since the pandemic while out-of-state transfers have gained preference. For example, when taking into account total transfers (including upward, lateral and reverse transfers) in Arizona, its statewide transfer enrollment flipped from 57.6% of its students preferring in-state transfers in the fall of 2019 to only 47% in the fall of 2022.

While upward transfers almost equally declined for all students of every income quintile since fall 2019 for students 24 and younger (16.9% on average), the country’s most affluent dominate transfers to highly selective schools. Numbers stabilize across the income quintiles for competitive and less selective schools.

There are some encouraging metrics for community college students who seek a bachelor’s degree. Students who enroll in community colleges and eventually transfer to 4-year institutions usually gain their degree in their fifth and sixth years. The National Student Clearinghouse data was able to discover that the cohort of students who began community college in the fall of 2016 attained their degrees at a similar rate to students from years past, even though those students’ fifth and sixth years were plagued by the pandemic.

“It is very encouraging that among those who transferred from community colleges into four-year schools six years ago, students are now completing bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than before, despite the disruptions of the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

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Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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