Report: Transfer rates from two-year to four-year colleges continue descent, falling 14.5% since the onset of the pandemic

The rate of upward transfers, or students moving from two-year to four-year institutions, continued its nosedive in Fall 2022, according to a recent Transfer and Progress Fall 2022 report released by the National Student Clearinghouse. Demonstrating the enduring impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on transfer enrollments and outcomes, the report found that upward transfer enrollment was the only type of transfer pathway to continue declining in Fall 2022, decreasing by 7.5% over the previous year and 14.5% since Fall 2020.

The drop in upward transfer enrollment “suggests that baccalaureate degree attainment is beginning to appear increasingly out of reach for community college students,” says Doug Shapiro, vice president of research and executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, according to Inside Higher Ed. This is particularly concerning because upward transfer pathways play an important role in providing low-income students access to a bachelor’s degree or higher, the report’s authors explain. 

Related: Transfer process a persistent barrier for community college students seeking bachelor’s degrees >

Economic disparities amid signs of recovery

Transfer students from lower income backgrounds were hit hardest during the pandemic, a trend reflected in upward transfer declines last fall. In Fall 2022, traditional age undergraduates (aged 24 and younger) from the top 20% of U.S. households made up almost half of upward and lateral transfers to the approximately 200 most selective four-year institutions in the country (46.0% and 47.7%, respectively). But only 5% of students from the bottom 20% of U.S. household incomes were upward and lateral transfers to those highly selective institutions, highlighting a lack of equitable access to a bachelor’s degree for low-income students, the report says.

Related: Coalition of elite institutions strengthening transfer pipeline from community colleges >

Despite these disparities, the report included some bright spots: the six-year college completion rate improved among upward transfer students who started community college in Fall 2016, even during their pandemic-impacted 5th and 6th years. Completion rates among Black upward transfer students who started community college in 2016 also increased. Additionally, for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, transfers from students who stopped out began to show signs of recovery, increasing 5.4% over the previous year. Returning students transferring to primarily online institutions accounted for 40% of this growth.

To address these disparities, the report suggests higher education institutions and policymakers to focus on the needs of lower income students and strengthen pathways to four-year institutions, which include investigating online options.

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