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Report: Fall Transfer Enrollment Remains in Decline in 2022

Fall transfer enrollment remains in decline in 2022, albeit at a slower rate than before, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.Dr. Doug ShapiroDr. Doug Shapiro

The Transfer and Progress Fall 2022 Report – released on Thursday– serves as a redesign of the research center’s two primary transfer reports, COVID 19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress and Tracking Transfer, to provide data regarding matters such as postsecondary participation and transfers and disparities in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report found that the declining fall transfer enrollment slowed down in 2022 (-4.7% in 2021 to -2.3% in 2022) but was still dropping faster than non-transfer enrollment in comparison (-4% in 2021 to -1.4% in 2022). An overall 6.9% decrease was observed for undergraduate transfer enrollment from 2020-2022. Yet, transfer enrollment still represents over 13% of non-freshmen undergraduate enrollment, the report authors wrote.

Undergraduate enrollment in general slowed its fall in 2022, going from -4.1% in 2021 to now -1.5%.

Upward transfers – where students transfer from two-year institutions to four-year schools – experienced the brunt of the drops, making up most of the Fall 2022 transfer enrollment decline, according to the report. This pattern makes it the only pathway to continue in decline in Fall 2022 (-7.5%), a total 14.5% decrease from 2020-2022.

The decline was also observed across institutions at all levels of selectiveness, the worst being for students transferring to highly selective institutions (-13.4%).

"Upward transfer has continued to decline pretty steadily at this point in every year since the pandemic at rates between 4-7%, so that's 2020, 2021, and 2022,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, vice president of research and executive director of the NSC Research Center. “This suggests that baccalaureate degree attainment is beginning to appear increasingly out of reach for community college students, particularly those who enrolled in urban and suburban community colleges when we looked at different locations of community colleges, the declines were steeper in those locations and in the community colleges that have primarily transfer-focused programs for their students. So this is very concerning."

Meanwhile, other transfer pathways saw enrollment rising back up in 2022, though still not enough to prevent an overall decrease from 2020-2022, the report noted. In 2022, lateral four-year transfer rates increased by 2%, lateral two-years by 0.3%, and reverse transfers by 1%. The report’s authors attributed these increases mainly to a rise in returning students.

Along gender lines, overall transfer enrollment for women remains steeper than for men (-3.5% and -0.7%, respectively).

And in terms of racial demographics, transfer enrollment fell for all major racial and ethnic groups, except for Black students, the report found. Black student enrollment generally stabilized (-0.2%) due to rising numbers of returning transfer students (+8.0%). Other ethnic groups, such as Latino and Asian students also saw rises in returning transfer enrollment, 9.7% and 8.3%. Yet, these climbs did not outweigh continuing transfer student declines.

Researchers also found that of the students who transferred to a four-year school from a community college, liberal arts majors were significantly more likely than non-liberal arts majors to change their major (82.0% and 55.7% in Fall 2022), a trend mostly unaffected by the effects of the pandemic.

That being said, no discernable pattern emerges among major changes between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors and other non-STEM majors, said Dr. Mikyung Ryu, NSC’s director of research publications.

Decreases aside, returning transfer student growth was found to be going well (12.5%) at primarily online institutions in Fall 2022, comprising almost 40% of the growth in returning students, according to the report.

And it is also encouraging that students who transferred from community colleges into four-year schools six years ago in 2016 are now completing bachelor's degrees at higher rates than before, Shapiro said.

“And that's true despite the fact that the final two years of that six-year window were the first two years of the pandemic,” Shapiro added. “Despite those disruptions of the pandemic, that cohort of students still earned bachelor's degrees at a higher rate than the students who started in 2015, or 2014 at community colleges."

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