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Research Finds Transfer Enrollment Drops as Disparities Grow Deeper Over the Pandemic Year

The latest report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows a significant decline in transfer student enrollment by 8.4 percent. Higher education institutions across America lost over 190,000 transfer students in the last year alone. 

The drop is especially significant in lateral transfers when students transfer from one two-year college to another, or from one four-year college to another, and reverse transfers when students transfer from a four year into a two-year college.

“These types of transfers are typically very common among freshmen who are looking to make a quick adjustment, usually correcting for a bad fit, perhaps, or an unexpected level of academic challenge, or some other change of plans,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive director of NSCRC.  Covid College

Shapiro and researchers were expecting a huge increase in lateral and reverse transfer. They assumed more students would transfer to a school closer to home or a less expensive institution due to the hardship brought on by the pandemic. However, lateral transfers dropped by nearly 12 percent. Over the past year, more students stayed put or simply  dropped out of college  entirely.

“This translates into some pretty unusual patterns at some institutions, for example, where we saw falling persistence rates despite increasing retention rates,” said Shapiro.

On the other hand, the number of students moving from a two-year college to a four-year, usually referred to as upward transfers, is relatively stable with only a 1.3 percent decline. 

However, the success in holding up upward transfers is not enough to make up for the bigger challenges higher education institutions still face.

“As transfers overall decline and equity gaps grow, however, this small segment alone cannot erase the larger concerns of diminished opportunity for students,” said Shapiro.

Disparities among transfer students have also grown across racial and ethnic lines in the past year. 

The research finds a slight increase in upward transfers among Asian and Latinx students. However, Black and Native American upward transfers fell further than pre-pandemic decline with the biggest drop of 6.1 percent among Black students. Overall transfer enrollment data shows Black students felling at the sharpest rate of all group

Community colleges that usually disproportionally enroll Black, Latinx, and indigenous students were hit the hardest. Transfer enrollment declined by over 14 percent this spring, doubling the drop from the previous year according to the Center’s report released in June. Students across the board all fared better at four-year public colleges.

Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) experienced the most substantial transfer student losses over the past academic year, losing over 70,000 transfer students. Their post-transfer persistence rate, along with Black-Serving Institutions has also fallen. Shapiro noted that this fall is largely driven by men.

"The drops were somewhat higher in male-dominated fields. So things like security and protective services, and computer and information sciences. Those are very male, in terms of their enrollments, at community colleges,” said Shapiro. “They each fell by more than three percentage points in total persistence. That's compared to the more female-dominated fields, like the health professions, and the liberal arts, which both fell by closer to two and a half percent.”

Shapiro was unclear whether these patterns were just a one-year blip due to the pandemic or the beginning of widespread change. 

“I know that everybody's crystal ball is a little cloudy right now," he said. 

Still, researchers expect to see disparities grow further in the upcoming academic year as the Delta variant continues to spread across the country.

“As the pandemic continues, there will likely be further divergences among students and institutions, deepening the longstanding concerns over disparities in student mobility and progress,” the researchers noted in the report. 

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