Transfers rise from community colleges to 4-year institutions

But National Student Clearinghouse data shows other students are opting largely to remain at their colleges or are not enrolling
By: | October 27, 2020
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The number of students transferring from two-year colleges to four-year institutions increased by 2.6% during the fall, but overall transfer enrollment dropped 4.7%, according to the COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress Report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The findings dispelled two prognostications that had been floated when the COVID-19 pandemic struck – that there would be students en masse transferring out of four-year institutions and going back to two-year colleges and that there would be considerable movement within community colleges or even within four-year institutions. Neither has occurred.

However, the declining numbers in all other areas of transfers along with middling enrollment figures previously released by the Clearinghouse show there is considerable work left to do in higher education, most notably for community colleges.

“Despite fears that many would be forced to transfer to lower-cost or closer-to-home options, student mobility overall appears constrained,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “The pandemic seems to be affecting students mainly by keeping them out of college, not by driving them to change colleges. Fewer students are enrolling as freshmen, and fewer are returning from stop-out [or temporary withdrawals].”

Even though enrollment numbers have missed the mark, the 2.6% increase in upward transfers was a small victory for four-year institutions and students who are making the move.

“This is essentially a great year to be looking to transfer from a community college to a four-year institution,” Shapiro said. “But so far, the results appear to be mixed in terms of whether or not that is actually increasing the equity and diversity of access along this pathway.”

Though upward transfers increased for Asian-American, Latinx and White students, Black student transfers declined slightly at 0.3%.

“That says that the Black students are falling further behind their peers in terms of this particular transfer pathway to the bachelor’s degree,” Shapiro said.

Lateral transfers – those students going from college to college – declined by 8.3% year over year. “Summer swirlers”, or those students who were at a four-year institution, transferred to community college over the summer and then transferred back to the four-year school, dropped by 10.8%.

Reverse transfers saw the steepest decline at 18.4%.

“We were among those who expected to see an increase in that behavior,” Shapiro said. “I don’t really have a good explanation for why.” He offered two possible reasons: “the overall challenges that community colleges appear to have had in transitioning their courses to online” something that for-profit institutions have excelled at, as well as doing “a better job of capitalizing on the pandemic to increase their enrollments.”