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Transfer Enrollments Increased Fall 2023


Element5 Digital J Ci Mc Op F Hig UnsplashIn fall of 2023, 5.3% more students than the previous year were able to successfully transfer to a new institution.

That’s according to the latest report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit studying data from a majority of postsecondary institutions in the U.S. While overall enrollments are still down (with about 100,000 students missing from community college since the start of the pandemic), the data show that student mobility has increased, particularly transfers into very competitive or highly selective institutions.

The growth was primarily driven by community college students, whose upward transfer to four-year institutions increased by 8% from the previous year. Students from vocational community colleges saw a 14% growth in transfers, and students from rural community colleges saw a 12% increase in transfers. In fact, transfer growth occurred in almost all sectors, from public four-year institutions to private non-profits.

Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the Clearinghouse, said the data is indicative of pandemic recovery.

“That means that the students are taking advantage of more options for finding the best programs and institutional fit for their needs,” said Shapiro. “These increases are a good sign.”

Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.The data also find that over half of transfer students decided to change their major when making their move. Eighty-two percent of liberal arts and sciences, humanities and general studies majors changed their majors upon transfer. No matter what field they came to study originally, students who switch their majors continue to overwhelmingly select health professions or computer and information sciences.

Six-year completion rates have also increased. For students who started at a community college in 2014, including those who transferred and those who did not, 33% obtained a credential. For students who started community college in 2016, which means a portion of their six years overlapped with COVID, 35% obtained a credential. Even though a two-percentage-point increase is small, Shapiro said it’s good news worth acknowledging, because “we’ve had a lot of bad news in recent years.”

“In terms of the overall state of higher education, it’s nothing to celebrate—there are still lots of students not completing,” said Shapiro. “And that’s something institutions and their advisors need to work more on.”

Almost all racial groups saw an increase in transfer from the previous year as well, excluding Asian-identifying students. Black and Latinx students saw the largest increase in transfers, a 7.8% and 5% increase from last year respectively.

Increased transfer rates were seen across all earnings demographics, and students from middle to low-income neighborhoods increased their transfer into highly selective institutions by 13.3% and 20.4% respectively.

“This form of upward transfer, that really represents an increase in access for lower-income students to more selective and more competitive colleges,” said Shapiro. “It seems to be a very good sign for access to bachelor degrees for students who might not be able to afford four years at a bachelor-degree granting institution.”

Dr. Frank Fernandez, associate professor of Higher Education Administration and Policy at the University of Florida.Dr. Frank Fernandez, associate professor of Higher Education Administration and Policy at the University of Florida.Dr. Frank Fernandez, an associate professor of Higher Education Administration and Policy at the University of Florida, said data like this confirms research that shows students can strategically use community colleges to prepare and be ready to transfer into more selective schools.

“In the context of the latest Supreme Court case ruling on race-conscious admissions, hopefully some of the most selective colleges would be more open to taking transfer students,” said Fernandez. “It’s a pathway to more diverse students and recruiting from more diverse community colleges could be a good thing to do.”

While an overall increase in transfer numbers does seem like a good thing, Fernandez said he was a little concerned by the increase in transfers to private for-profit institutions and online institutions, which saw a 15.5% and 7.7% increase in transfers from the previous year for both continuing and returning students (those who stopped out of their educational journey for a period of time).

“We know historically that under-represented students of color don’t do too well in either of those [types of institutions], for different reasons,” said Fernandez.

Overall, Fernandez said this data prompts questions and new places to investigate, like how dual-credit programs or College Promise Programs, which offer community college access at low-or-no cost to students in states like Oregon and Tennessee, may or may not have contributed to these transfer successes. Scholars have been advocating for institutions to stop withholding transcripts of students with unpaid fines, and Fernandez said he wonders if this change in particular has allowed returning students a chance to complete their education.

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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