You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Four students walk down a flight of stairs smiling and holding school supplies.

Transfers between community colleges and four-year institutions are up after dropping during the pandemic.

Eduard Figueres/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has some good news for transfer students and their advocates.

The annual “Transfer and Progress” report, released today, found transfers are on the rise, over all and markedly for historically disadvantaged groups, including low-income students, Black and Hispanic students, and rural students. The National Student Clearinghouse researchers analyzed the transfer patterns of 11.7 million undergraduates in fall 2023 at a fixed set of colleges and universities.

They found that the number of students who transferred that fall grew 5.3 percent compared to fall 2022. That overall growth included lateral transfers, that is, transfers between four-year institutions or between community colleges, but the surge was mainly driven by a 7.7 percent increase in upward transfer—transfers from two-year colleges to four-year institutions. Transfers also increased among students who previously stopped out of college as well as those who stayed enrolled, up 3.7 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively.

“What we can say pretty confidently is that student mobility is increasing over all, especially at community colleges,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “And that means that students are taking advantage of more options for finding the best program and the best institution fit for their needs,” especially among students traditionally underrepresented in higher ed.

These new findings appear to be “a part of the recovery from the pandemic,” after transfers between community colleges and four-year institutions dropped following the onset of COVID-19, he added.

Who’s Transferring Where

Black and Hispanic students showed the most substantial overall transfer increases compared to other racial and ethnic groups. The number of Black students who transferred rose 7.8 percent, largely driven by students who had stopped out and then returned to college. Transfer among Hispanic students rose 5 percent, compared to 0.9 percent for Native American students and 2.2 percent for white students. The number of Asian students transferring fell 2.7 percent.

Meanwhile, transfers rose across genders and age groups, including a sizable 11.8 percent increase for learners aged 40 and older. The number of transfer students from low-income and middle-income neighborhoods also increased, between 5 percent and 6.3 percent for students from neighborhoods in the lowest three income quintiles.

Juana Sánchez, director of the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board, a group of experts dedicated to transforming the transfer process (which contributes to Inside Higher Ed), said these results appear to indicate the “incredible resilience that learners have, and the incredible motivation that they have, given some of the economic challenges that they continue to face” as they and their communities continue to recover from the pandemic.

She also emphasized the value of having available transfer data disaggregated by race, socioeconomic background and other factors “if we are really going to be attentive to the equity implications of these enrollment changes.”

The report also explored the types of institutions that contributed to transfer growth.

Notably, rural community colleges experienced a 12.1 percent increase in students transferring to four-year institutions, and community colleges focused on vocational training had a 13.9 percent increase.

Upward transfer rose across all types of four-year institutions, with the highest rates of growth at private four-year colleges and universities—11.8 percent at nonprofit privates and 15.5 percent at for-profit privates. Highly selective institutions also boosted their enrollment of community college transfer students from low- and middle-income neighborhoods, 13.3 percent and 20.4 percent, respectively.

The report found that students who stopped out of college increasingly weren’t coming back to the institutions where they started and seemed to largely be transferring to certain types of institutions. The number of stop-outs who transferred last fall grew by 6 percent at community colleges, 12.6 percent at primarily online institutions and 20.7 percent at for-profit universities. They were often making lateral transfers, between two community colleges or two four-year institutions.

John Fink, research associate and program lead at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said transfer increases at some types of institutions may be cause for concern. Recent research by the center shows students who transfer to for-profits and primarily online institutions are less likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees within four years of transferring.

In contrast, transfers to public four-year institutions and selective institutions are more likely to thrive academically and complete, so he found it “encouraging” to see more community college transfer students enrolling at these universities.

Fink noted that selective universities haven’t historically prioritized enrolling transfer students, partly because of misperceptions that these students are academically underprepared, when in fact they tend to perform on par with or outperform their peers over time.

“Transfer students who are going to these very selective institutions are highly talented and are bringing a lot of momentum with them from the community college,” he said.

Shapiro also emphasized that more low-income students transferring to selective institutions is “a very good sign for access to bachelor’s degrees for students who might not be able to afford four years at a four-year college.”

‘Tempered’ Optimism

Transfer experts and researchers emphasized that the new data presents positive news, but those successes need to be considered against the backdrop of severe pandemic enrollment losses and a transfer system that’s been faulty for decades.

The report also tracked academic outcomes for seven different cohorts of students who started at community colleges between fall 2014 and fall 2022. While the number of students entering community colleges in fall 2022 grew 6.5 percent compared to fall 2021, that cohort still had about 100,000 fewer students than fall 2019.

“Enrollments are way down still from the pandemic,” Fink said.

In terms of outcomes, Shapiro did note, however, that community college students who started in 2020 had higher upward transfer rates in their second and third years of college than previous cohorts, so “even those pandemic-impacted students are seeing gains in upward transfer rates.”

The share of community college students who earned an associate degree, bachelor’s degree or certificate within six years also rose from 33.1 percent for the 2014 entering cohort to 35.2 percent for the 2016 cohort, according to the report.

Shapiro said that finding signals improvement, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Any increase at this point is good news, is worth highlighting,” after “a lot of bad news in recent years,” he said. At the same time, “in terms of the overall state of higher education, the absolute rate is nothing to celebrate … There are still a lot of students who are not completing.”

Sánchez similarly said that the report left her feeling optimistic, but that “optimism is tempered,” because even if more community college students are transferring, they still face barriers to academic success when they do.

“I still want to know what will happen to the students as they transfer, how their prior learning … the credit that they have accrued, how will that be applied to programs of study, to degrees and credentials?” she said. “How quickly can students obtain those credentials to get back into the workforce and kind of get on with their lives?”

“I think this is a hopeful set of data,” she added. “I think we’re seeing trends move in a direction that we want to see both from the perspective of what we need for our larger economy but also what we need from an institutional perspective. But I still have questions of how our institutions may be shifting some of their day-to-day practices and policies to really embrace these students and help them reach completion in an efficient manner.”

Next Story

Written By

More from Academics