New transfer data more positive than 2020 as enrollments stabilize across higher ed

Most four-year and two-year institutions rebound well, showing that mobility is slowly returning.

After expressing fears last spring that higher education might not have seen the “last fallout from COVID-19” on transfer enrollment, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s new report reveals far more optimism.

Though overall undergraduate enrollments are still down across higher ed, student transfers are seeing only the slightest of declines, according to data from the sixth in its COVID-19: Transfer, Mobility, and Progress series. After falling more than 9% in fall of 2020, transfer enrollment dropped just 0.8% this past fall.

With 92% of institutions reporting, most sectors are in positive numbers in terms of continuing transfers. Private four-year nonprofits showed the biggest rebound, with 7.7% gains year over year after declining nearly 6% in fall 2020. Two-year colleges, which saw a 25% drop in 2020 that may not be recoverable in the near team, rose 1%. The lone outlier was for-profits, which fell another 3.2% after suffering 15% on transfer losses in 2020.

“Transfer pathways in fall 2021 show signs of students and campuses working hard to find greater latitude for navigating the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Even as total undergraduate enrollment slid further, students who have stayed enrolled are finding ways to adapt to their specific challenges through transfer and mobility.”

This fall’s percentage decline added up to about 11,000 students, compared with 137,000 in fall 2020. Although continuing student numbers are strong, returning transfer data is not. Private four-year nonprofits fell 8.5% from 2020, public four-years have dipped 3.2% and two-year colleges are down 3.4%, showing that students who stopped out are not only not returning to postsecondary education but also finding less mobility. Returning transfers into for-profit dropped a whopping 20.7%.

Returning transfer numbers showed disparities among all types of pathways – upward (from two-year to four-year) -7.3%; lateral (four-year to four-year) -9.2%; lateral (two-year to two-year) -3.9%; and reverse (four-year to two-year) -2.3%.

On the flip side, continuing students rose across all types, punctuated by a 9% rise among lateral four-year transfers. Most others saw nominal gains, most notably lateral two-year transfers, which increased 1.6% after dropping 26% in 2020.

As for colleges and universities themselves, the Clea ringhouse report shows the allure of very competitive and highly selective colleges, which combined to post 5-6% gains, or roughly an additional 9,000 student transfers. Competitive institutions managed to hold the line on upward transfer while seeing big increases in lateral transfers at +6%. But less selective institutions were again not a preferred destination for upward (-9%) or lateral (-4.7%) transfers.

Three other notable data points:

  • Student transfers in the 18-20 age range showed huge gains of more than 13% after posting an 8.7% decline in 2020.
  • Transfers of men increased 1.2%, while women declined 2.3%.
  • White (-2.5%), Black (-1.8%), Latinx (-2.9%) and Native American (-1%) transfers fell but not quite at the pace of 2020. Asian student transfers saw the largest decline at -4.4%.
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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