The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released a new research report today that shows student transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions increased by 2.6% in the first fall semester of the pandemic. Other types of transfers were down, however, confounding some expectations about how the pandemic would affect student mobility between institutions.
The Center’s COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress Report gives a first look at the effects of the pandemic on college students’ movement between higher education institutions. The findings are based on preliminary data reported as of September 24, 2020, by 54% of Title IV degree-granting institutions that participate in the Clearinghouse’s research.
Some of the major findings include:
Different transfer pathways. Overall, all kinds of transfer were down 4.7% from last fall, a decrease that’s slightly larger than the fall-over-fall decrease in undergraduate students in general. However, the four different transfer pathways showed widely discrepant trends:
- “Upward transfers,” involving two-year students moving to a four-year college, increased 2.6% over last fall.
- “Reverse transfers” (students moving from four-year institutions to two-year colleges) fell 18.4%.
- “Summer swirlers” (students who transfer to a different institution for just the summer) were down 10.8%.
- “Lateral transfers” (students moving from one two-year college to another or transferring between four-year institutions) decreased 8.3%.
Upward transfer destinations. Public four-year colleges are the most common destination of upward transfers from a community college (58.8%), increasing 2.9% over last year. Upward transfers to a private nonprofit four-year institution increased 3.1%, but transfers to private for-profit four-year institutions dropped 2.1%.
Characteristics of upward transfers. The increase in upward transfers was led by students transferring from a community college without an associate degree, gaining by 6.9% over last year. By contrast, community college students transferring with an associate degree decreased 7.4%. Currently, almost three-quarters – 72.7% – of upward transfers had not earned an associate degree at the time of transfer.
In addition, upward transfer from two-year colleges involving an out-of-state move increased more than in-state upward transfer. (5.5% vs. 1.7%, respectively). Nonetheless, the majority of upward transfer students still do not cross state lines (76.5%).
The growth in upward transfers is led by continuing students, those who maintained their enrollment through the pandemic. By contrast, students who had stopped out prior to the outbreak are less likely to have come back at all this fall, and less than half of those who came back transferred.
Following a decline in the number of upward transfers last year among Black (-4%), White (-3.6%), and Asian (-2.3%) continuing students, the number of Asian and White students increased in 2020 (18.7% and 1.8%, respectively), while Black students saw essentially no growth (-0.2%). Among Hispanic continuing students, there was an increase of 5.6% in the number of upward transfers, compared to only a 0.2% increase last fall.
The number of women transferring to a four-year college (+6.9%) increased significantly more than men (+1.1%) over last year, following decreases for both women (-1.3%) and men (-2%) in the previous year.
These new data do not support some predictions about the effects of the pandemic, such as the anticipation that more four-year college students would choose to transfer to community colleges, which are less expensive and usually closer to home.
Although the data about upward transfers come as good news for four-year colleges, they add to the headaches of the community college sector, whose 2020 fall enrollment has plunged by more than 9% compared to fall, 2019. Combine the fact that first-year student enrollment is down more than 20% with the fact that upward transfers are increasing and reverse transfers are decreasing and it makes for a very disturbing pattern in the higher education sector where so many lower-income students get their start.
The modest increase in transfers to four-year schools was also unexpected. On a Monday media briefing about the results, Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, speculated that the surprising increase in upward transfers may reflect four-year schools easing up on the typical requirements they’ve imposed on transfer students in the past. For example, they may be making it easier for two-year students to transfer in credits they’ve previously earned at a community college.
This is the first report in the Research Center’s COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress Report series, which it announced in July would track student transfer, mobility, and progress in near-real-time in order to quantify the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on higher education.
With the help of grant support from the Ascendium Education Group, the educational philanthropy and loan guarantor organization, and the ECMC Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes college success for traditionally underserved students, the series will ultimately include nine reports extending to Summer 2022. The reports will also provide up-to-date information about how the pandemic is affecting student success and completion rates.