Transfer student enrollment rates are down 6.9% from a year ago, according to a new study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Combined with the previous year, the total number of transferred registrations has decreased by approximately 16% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most important findings of the study is the sharp drop in upward transfer enrollment from two- to four-year institutions, which fell 11.6% this spring, a sharp increase from the 1 .3% from fall 2020 to spring 2021 — students moving from two- to four-year programs — are the most common student transfer pathways, accounting for nearly half of all transfers in 2019.
Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the clearinghouse, said that while she expected the downward trend in upward transfer registrations to continue, she did not expect that it falls so far or so fast.
“We’re looking at a double-digit year-over-year decline,” she said. “I’ve never seen this kind of decline in my adult career.”
Ed Venit, managing director of student success research at EAB, an education consultancy, said he was alarmed but not surprised by the huge percentage drop in up-transfer enrollment.
“A massive contraction in enrollment in the two-year college space is expected to have a big impact on four-year transfers,” he said. “A year ago, we weren’t seeing that reflected in the data. We were kind of waiting for the shoe to drop, and the shoe is dropping now.
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 previous years. Community college enrollment fell 14.4% between 2010 and 2017 and 13% in the past two years.
“For upward transfers, the primary source of enrollment is 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 in 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 all demographic groups and among institutions, regardless of selectivity.
Long term consequences
For Ryu, the data doesn’t give much cause for hope.
“I think those 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 fears that many will be discouraged from following the already narrow pathways open to them to earn a four-year degree.
“Community colleges are, by design, broad-access institutions,” she said. “Since [those students] don’t come back or come to start community college, the huge drop in enrollment is a threat to upward mobility… It’s going to take the country a while to recover, if it ever recovers.
Venit shared Ryu’s bleak outlook on the general downward trajectory of transfer sign-ups post-pandemic, particularly its impact on underserved communities.
“This is a significant fairness issue,” Venit said. “When you look at who starts in a two-year school and ends up with a bachelor’s degree, there’s a big gap between whites and Asians and Hispanics and blacks…we’re probably losing quite a bit of diversity in education superior in these spaces between schools.”
A potential benefit of the trends, Venit said, would be for higher education institutions to make a more concerted effort to fix what he calls a “broken” and “grossly inefficient” transfer system.
According to a 2015 study by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, approximately 80% of students who enroll in community college intend to earn a bachelor’s degree. Of these, only 25% end up transferring to a four-year program and only 17% earn a bachelor’s degree.
Venit said this was due to a number of factors, including a credit enrollment system that often results in lost credit hours and a lack of coordination between two- and four-year institutions. But with enrollment declining, Venit hopes there will finally be an incentive to “make the system work for students” and get enrollment rates back up.
“This is the first time that the driving force for schools to focus on recruiting relief students may be the free market,” Venit said. “It’s a job that can be done. It’s labor intensive, but suddenly, if the transfer market is down and you need those transfer students, and on top of that, if you’re motivated by closing the gaps in equity is an area you want to focus on.
Ryu said if institutions with declining enrollment want to recruit transfer students to fill the void, more creative and specific approaches may be needed.
“It takes a whole village to reach non-traditional adult students from ethnic minority communities,” she said. “Institutions will need to think strategically about how to reach them and provide them with the academic and financial support necessary for their retention once they are there.