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Colleges and universities lost about 191,500 transfer students between July 2020 and June 2021, a drop almost three times larger than the prior year, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The report also found racial inequities in upward transfer enrollment -- students going from two-year institutions to four-year institutions -- and major differences in upward transfer rates at highly selective and less selective institutions.

“A lot of institutions are trying to focus on making it easier for students to transfer,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “And I hope that this report will help them to really target their efforts on the pathways and the students who are being most affected and look for ways to help those students in particular.”

The new report, released today, is the fifth update in a series of reports about student transfer. It’s also the first comprehensive annual report to take a close look at the 2.1 million undergraduates who transferred institutions over the last academic year as students continued to struggle with job loss, financial hardship and online learning during the pandemic.

The report found that some transfer pathways were hit harder than others. Lateral transfers between two-year colleges or between four-year institutions fell by 11.9 percent and account for 60 percent of the total decline in transfer enrollment. Transfer enrollment between two-year institutions dropped more steeply than transfer enrollment between four-year institutions -- 15.2 percent and 7.5 percent respectively. Reverse transfers from four-year to two-year institutions also took a hit, decreasing by 16.2 percent.

Upward transfers from two-year institutions to four-year institutions held relatively steady with a 1.3 percent decline, a loss of about 11,900 students, compared to a 1.2 percent decrease last year.

“Holding steady isn’t necessarily where we want to be with upward transfer,” said John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It’s already pretty low, even before the pandemic.”

He pointed out that fewer than one in three community college students transfers to a university within six years.

“Really the whole transfer system, even before the pandemic, was already underperforming and inequitable,” he said.

A more granular breakdown of upward transfer enrollment reveals deepening racial and gender gaps, according to the report.

“While the overall upward transfer rate increased -- that’s good for access to bachelor’s degrees -- the disparities, the gaps in those upward transfer rates appear to have gotten worse in terms of equity,” Shapiro said.

Women fared better than men in the transfer process. Male upward transfers fell by 4.4 percent, more than double the decrease from the previous year. Female upward transfers grew slightly at 0.6 percent.

Black and Native American students experienced the steepest declines in upward transfer -- they fell by 6.1 percent and 4.1 percent respectively. Asian upward transfers increased by 5.9 percent and Latinx upward transfers increased by 1.4 percent over the year.

While Latinx students led growth in upward transfers during the spring, the report found that the increase was concentrated at less competitive institutions. Shapiro also noted that the increase in Latinx upward transfers remains low compared to what he expects based on demographic trends.

The report also found major disparities in upward transfer rates among different types of institutions. Highly selective four-year institutions, unlike their less selective counterparts, increased their upward transfer enrollment by a whopping 10.3 percent. Upward transfer rates at these institutions were up among students all races, ethnicities and genders. Shapiro considers this data point a “bright spot” amid the otherwise concerning trends in the report.

“The most selective schools, they really appear to have stepped up and taken more transfer students to try and, I think, help their own enrollments but more importantly help the students who arguably needed the most help during the pandemic,” Shapiro said.

But Shapiro also pointed out that most upward transfers to highly selective institutions were among students who shifted from a community college to a four-year institution in a different state. Out-of-state transfers to these institutions grew at a rate three times higher than in-state transfers. That difference implies that students benefiting from this trend may disproportionately be students with the financial means to afford out-of-state tuition.

While numbers of Black and Latinx students transferring to highly selective institutions grew, Asian and white students still had the largest numerical increases, noted Tania Nguyen LaViolet, director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, which focuses on improving student outcomes.

That observation is “a red flag but also presents an opportunity,” she said. “Transfer during the pandemic has been treated as an enrollment strategy. There’s an opportunity to marry that enrollment strategy with an equity strategy as well.”

She wants to see highly selective colleges and universities continue to enroll more transfer students but with a more targeted “equity lens.”

The report found that total transfers to historically Black colleges and universities held firm, with a slight dip of 0.2 percent, while Hispanic-serving institutions experienced an 11.8 percent drop in transfers. Men mostly drove the declines. Persistence rates from spring 2020 to fall 2020 at both kinds of institutions fell slightly during the pandemic, though Hispanic-serving institutions made some gains in the latter part of the academic year.

Over all, posttransfer persistence rates from term to term fell across institutions. The report says 29.6 percent of the roughly 860,000 spring 2020 transfer students were no longer enrolled when the fall term began, indicating a persistence rate of 70.4 percent for students who had transferred shortly before or immediately after the pandemic was declared. Among the approximately 1.4 million students who transferred in fall 2020, about 19.3 percent dropped out in spring 2021, which amounts to a persistence rate of 80.7 percent. Pandemic-related persistence decline was relatively small, but it still reflects worrying disparities, especially during the initial phase of the pandemic, the report says. For example, male persistence rates dipped during fall 2020, when male and female persistence rates usually remain steady year over year.

Fink said it’s important for higher education leaders to think about not just access to transfer but whether students stay enrolled after the transfer process.

“Obviously, the best thing for students is for four-year institutions to be increasing access to transfer and supports after students arrive so that they can be successful,” he said.

He hopes colleges and universities will look to this report on student transfer as an example of the kinds of detailed data they can collect, on a more local level, to understand how different students at different kinds of institutions fare in the transfer process, especially in light of a pandemic that surged in different areas and affected some communities disproportionately.

“One of the ways a report like this can be useful in the field is for colleges and universities to essentially build off of or replicate the sorts of trends or metrics or ways of disaggregating outcomes but look more locally,” he said. “I think that more detailed look is really important for actually trying to improve outcomes for students.”

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