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Another Sign Of The Pandemic's Effect On College Students: Fewer Transfers

Fewer college students have transferred schools during the pandemic, according to new data.
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Fewer college students have transferred schools during the pandemic, according to new data.

Fewer students transferred between colleges over the 2020-2021 school year, and new data show that trends in who is transferring between colleges — and where they're going — may be exacerbating existing inequity.

Nearly 200,000 fewer students transferred last year compared to the year before — an 8.4% decline, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

"In normal times, the transfer plays a very important role," says Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Transfer options provide students with "more accessible educational pathways to bachelor's degree attainment, particularly for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or low income communities or racial and ethnic minorities."

Students might start at a 2-year college and transfer to a 4-year school, or make the switch to a community college to take the last classes they need for a degree.

When the pandemic began, many predicted that transfer rates would spike. "There was a lot of concern that the pandemic would disrupt students' education plans, not just by keeping freshmen out of college, but also by causing continuing students to switch schools unexpectedly," says Ryu.

But that didn't happen.

"Lateral transfers" — a term used to describe the switch from similar types of schools, like one 2-year school to another, or from one 4-year school to a different one — declined 11.9%. Meanwhile, "reverse transfers" — from a 4-year university to a 2-year community college, for example — dropped by 16.2%. Overall, enrollment for Black transfer students dropped the most, though white students, Native American students and Latinx students also saw large declines. The decline in transfer enrollment for men was also double that of women.

What this means, Ryu says, is that students who may have opted to transfer in previous years have instead stayed put at their schools or withdrawn altogether. Previous students who might have opted to re-enroll in pre-pandemic times didn't do that.

The National Student Clearinghouse reported recently that one in four freshmen who started college in the fall of 2019 didn't return to school in the fall of 2020. The rate of students who came back to school dropped two percentage points from the previous year. Undergraduate college enrollmenthas been falling for a decade, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that problem. Community colleges saw the highest enrollment drops over the past academic year.

Despite the declines in transfer students, the number of "upward transfers" — from 2-year to 4-year colleges — fell only slightly, consistent with patterns before the pandemic. One outlier: Transfers to highly selective colleges jumped, reaching record rates in the spring. While rates of growth for each racial and ethnic group grew, "white students drove that growth at these institutions," according to the report.

She and other researchers will be tracking these transfer students to learn more about how they fare, and she says ensuring they stay enrolled in school should be top of mind for institutions over the coming year. "We need to really pay attention to persistence and timely progression toward the degree completion for these particular students who took this pandemic as an opportunity to go into 4-year institutions from 2-year schools," Ryu says.

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