Number of college transfer students declines sharply

Black and Hispanic students show notable drop-offs, especially at community colleges, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
By: | December 21, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the mobility of higher education students seeking to transfer this year, particularly those from lower-income and underserved backgrounds, according to new data released Monday by the National Clearinghouse Student Research Center.

Numbers from the Center’s latest fall COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress Report show declines from 2019 among all three transfer categories, especially reverse transfers (or those going from four-year to two-year institutions) which posted a 19.4% drop compared with a 3.6% fall last year. Lateral transfers (or those going from four-year to other four-year institutions, for example) also sustained a steep drop of 12.6% from 3.1%.

Even students upwardly seeking to move from two-year institutions to a four-years saw a 0.7% decline. In 2019, those students moving from up from community colleges actually saw a 0.2% increase.

Overall, the transfer student rate of decline was far steeper than that of returning students – 8.1% compared with 2.4%.

The trends are not surprising given the disruption caused to students and families and other notable numbers, such as the increase in stop-out rates (16.7%) and declines in freshman enrollment (12.4%). Because of continued uncertainly and potential further economic fallout from the pandemic, the Center’s researchers expressed concern about the “lasting impact” it will have on attainment moving forward.

“Transfer is an important part of student success, enabling access to bachelor’s degrees for community college students, and critical opportunities for course-correction by students whose goals have changed or who need a stronger institutional fit,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse. “As the pandemic continues to constrain these avenues of institutional choice, students will face ever larger barriers to educational attainment, promising careers, and socioeconomic mobility.”

That is especially true for Black and Hispanic students. Reverse transfers and lateral transfers into community colleges saw a more than 20% drop. Black students lost ground more than any other group at private four-year institutions (9.2%) and public four-years (6.4%). Hispanic transfer students entering four-year institutions were on the rise before the pandemic, but have dropped at both privates (2.6%) and publics (0.3%). Asian transfer students notably dropped 16% at community colleges but increased at public four-years (4.6%) and at privates (6.8%).

“Today’s data show that these adverse impacts fall disproportionately on Black and Hispanic students,” Shapiro said.

The pandemic also seems to be impacting male transfer students more than female students across all age groups. Men sustained an 11.6% drop in transfer enrollment, while women transfers dropped 5.7%.

Researchers did note three interesting outliers from the overall downward trends:

  • The 1.8% increase in students transferring into four-year institutions without associate degrees;
  • The 2.5% increase in those who transferred in from out-of-state community colleges; and
  • The increase in returning transfer students at primarily online-only institutions.

The Center plans to provide new updates for the spring of 2021. It says the latest findings are based on 92% of its institutions reporting and total some 12.5 million undergraduates who do not have bachelor’s degrees or are not dual-enrolled high school students. It says upward transfers, those going from two-year to four-year institutions, comprise nearly 50% of all transfers. Lateral transfers make up 38%, while reverse transfers account for about 12.5%.