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Transfer student enrollment rates decreased by 6.9 percent over last year, according to a new study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Combined with the previous year, total transfer enrollment has declined by about 16 percent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the study’s most significant findings is the steep drop in upward-transfer enrollment from two- to four-year institutions, which fell by 11.6 percent this spring, a sharp increase over the 1.3 percent decline from fall 2020 to spring 2021. Upward transfers—students moving from two-year to four-year programs—are the most common student transfer pathways, comprising nearly half of all transfers in 2019.
Mikyung Ryu, the clearinghouse’s director of research publications, said that while she expected the downward trend in upward-transfer enrollment to continue, she didn’t expect it to drop so far or so fast.
“We’re looking at a double-digit decline over one year,” she said. “I’ve never seen that kind of decline in my adult career.”
Ed Venit, managing director of student success research at EAB, an education consulting firm, said he was alarmed but not surprised by the huge percentage drop in upward-transfer enrollment.
“A massive enrollment contraction in the two-year college space should lead to a big impact on four-year transfers,” he said. “A year ago, we didn’t see that reflected in the data. We were kind of waiting for the shoe to drop, and the shoe is now dropping.”
Ryu said the drop is the “combined and cumulative impact” of the general decline in community college enrollment, not only during the pandemic, but also in the years prior. Enrollment at community colleges fell by 14.4 percent from 2010 to 2017 and by 13 percent over the past two years.
“For upward transfers, the main source of enrollment comes from community colleges,” Ryu said. “So the source is running out.”
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s 2021 transfer-student mobility report found that during the first year of the pandemic, upward-transfer enrollment actually increased at selective four-year institutions, as well as among Asian and Latino community college students. But the new report shows universal declines across demographic groups and among institutions, regardless of selectivity.
For Ryu, the data don’t provide much reason for hope.
“I think these trends are here to stay,” she said. “And that means long-term consequences that may not be immediately visible, and not just for community colleges.”
The consequences would fall disproportionately on adult students of color from low-income backgrounds, Ryu said. She’s concerned many will be discouraged from following the already narrow pathways open for them to attain a four-year degree.
“Community colleges are, by design, broad-access institutions,” she said. “Since [those students] are not coming back or are not coming to start community college, the huge decline in enrollment is a threat to upward mobility … This is going to take a while for the country to recover, if they ever recover.”
Venit shared Ryu’s bleak outlook on the general downward trajectory of transfer enrollment post-pandemic, especially its impact on underserved communities.
“This is a big-time equity issue,” Venit said. “When you look at who starts at a two-year school and completes with a bachelor’s degree, there’s a big gap between white and Asian and Hispanic and Black … we’re probably losing quite a bit of diversity in higher education in these spaces between schools.”
One potential upside to the trends, Venit said, would be if higher education institutions make a more concerted effort to fix what he calls a “broken” and “extremely inefficient” transfer system.
According to a 2015 study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, about 80 percent of students who enroll in community college intend to get a bachelor’s degree. Of those, only 25 percent end up transferring to a four-year program, and just 17 percent ever earn a bachelor’s.
Venit said this is due to a number of factors, including a credit-matriculation system that often leads to lost credit hours and a lack of coordination between two- and four-year institutions. But with enrollment down, Venit hopes there’s finally some incentive to “make the system work for students” and drive enrollment rates back up.
“This is the first time that the incentivizing factor for schools to focus on recruiting upward-transfer students may be the free market,” Venit said. “It’s work that can be done. It’s labor-intensive, but suddenly if the transfer market is declining and you need those transfer students, and on top of that, if you’re motivated by closing equity gaps, this is an area you want to be focused on.”
Ryu said that if institutions with falling enrollments want to recruit transfer students to fill in the gap, more creative and specific approaches may be necessary.
“It takes a village to reach out to adult, nontraditional students in ethnic minority communities,” she said. “Institutions will have to think strategically about how to reach out to them and how to provide them with the academic and financial support needed for retention once they’re there.”