Student transfer enrollment falls 9.6%, Clearinghouse says

Community colleges bear brunt of lack of mobility; slight increases shown in 2-year-to-4-year transfers.
By: | June 3, 2021
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Onward and upward for some, but not for others.

That has been the tale of transfers in postsecondary education over the past year. Despite a slight increase in students shifting from two-year to four-year institutions, other transfer types have experienced deep declines, according to a new report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The latest data from its COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress Report series shows a 9.6% drop in transfer enrollment during the spring for college and university students, the most since the pandemic began. Reverse transfers have fallen 17.5% since last spring, while lateral transfers are down more than 12%.

Community colleges continue to sustain the most transfer losses among all institutions. The lack of mobility also has hurt Black and Latinx students more than others, according to Clearinghouse researchers.

“This semester marks the steepest year-over-year decline in overall transfer enrollment since the pandemic began, with a [nearly] 10% drop over last spring in the number of students who changed institutions from their most recent prior enrollment,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “As a comparison, non-transfer students declined by only 6.5%. Making sure that students remain able to access all available opportunities to reach their goals, including through transfer, is critical to supporting their success amid the disruptions of the pandemic.”

Transfers are key for many institutions looking to seal enrollment gaps, boost diversity, and fill bottom lines, and they remain an education lifeline for some students. Despite the efforts of some institutions to offer less stringent transfer-credit options, COVID-19 pandemic fallout has limited their options. Stop-outs, dropouts and obstacles to better pathways remain concerns.

Inside the numbers

The latest Clearinghouse data includes results from 94% of 3,600 institutions reporting and highlight the challenges that are occurring at two-year institutions:

  • Transfer enrollment declines doubled from last year’s spring totals to -16.3% this year, surpassing even the double-digit dips of non-transfer students (-13%).
  • All subgroups – White, Black, Latinx, and Asian – saw stunning drops that eclipsed those of non-transfer students. Latinx student transfer enrollment fell 19% year-over-year at public two years (it saw only a 3% drop in 2020), but experienced a surprising 1.8% increase in transfers from two-year to four-year institutions. White and Black transfer enrollment both fell by more than 15% this year.

For-profit institutions also saw steep drops year-over-year, with transfer enrollment falling 9.9% after being the only sector to see a slight increase (2.1%) before the pandemic. Private four-year institutions also showed a nearly 5% decline.

Two positives from the report were: students making the move from two-years to four-years – an increase of 1.5% from last spring’s pre-pandemic figures (which showed a 5.5% decline); and the viability of public four-year institutions, which not only saw only a nominal dip in transfer enrollment when compared with last year.

Though public four-year colleges saw transfer enrollments for White and Black drop (6.2% and 2.8%), respectively, those percentages were better than pre-pandemic levels. Clearinghouse researchers noted a boost, too, in mobility among Asian students, whose transfers rose 2%.

Among age groups, adult learners ages 30-and-over seem less impacted by the fallout from the pandemic and more willing to transfer than their younger counterparts. Though their transfers did fall 2.5%, those numbers among ages 18-24 plummeted 13.6%. Younger students, however, saw far steeper increases in upward transfers (7.6%) than older students (3.75).

Male students have been far less likely to move (-13.7%) than female students (-5.9%) during the pandemic. And that is most evident in upward transfers, with women’s rates soaring 7.5% and men falling 5.1%.