Transfer enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities has declined 13.5% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, representing a two-year loss of 296,200 transfer students, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That rate far exceeds the 6.3% loss in non-transfer enrollment during that time frame, Higher Ed Dive reports.
Transfer student enrollment experienced its sharpest drop at the beginning of the pandemic, falling by 9.1% from 2020-21. In the second year of the pandemic, transfer enrollment declines slowed, falling by 4.9%.
All transfer pathways experienced declines. Transfers into community colleges fell by double-digits, with lateral transfer and reverse transfer enrollment rates plunging 21.3% and 18.0%, respectively. Transfers to four-year colleges also decreased by 9.7%. These transfer pathways, says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, “enable students to change institutions as their needs and aspirations change.” Without those options, students typically choose to stop out entirely.
The pandemic exacerbated existing logistical hurdles in the transfer process, experts note, as students faced inconsistent pandemic-related policies among two- and four-year institutions and had to manage the application process without in-person advisors or campus support services. The impact of transfer student enrollment declines may be felt for years to come, Shapiro says. “Today’s missing transfer students will too often become tomorrow’s missing graduates unless educators and policy makers respond quickly with interventions tailored to the needs of affected learners,” he told Higher Ed Dive.
However, John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College at Columbia University, tells Inside Higher Ed that he hopes the latest numbers will sharpen experts’ focus on supporting transfer students, particularly those coming from community colleges, who have been the most underserved.
The clearinghouse report highlights several opportunities for greater support, showing that the persistence rate for students one term after transferring fell and, in general, remained below pre-pandemic levels. In addition, the research center points out that transfers among students older than 20 declined 16.2%, more than double the 7.2% drop among students 20 or younger.
A silver lining? HBCUs transfer enrollment rebounds
Despite the declines in transfer enrollment overall, transfer rates to well-known historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) rebounded in the 2021-22 academic year, climbing 7.7% after an 11.1% drop the previous year. The increase may reflect, in part, a greater racial consciousness following the murder of George Floyd, and a need to feel connected to and safe in a supportive community, Walter M. Kimbrough, a longtime HBCU leader, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Although HBCUs make up only 3% of all post-secondary institutions in the U.S., they produce about 13% of all bachelor’s degrees among Black students. Dr. Helene Gayle, president of Spelman College, tells PBS Newshour that the trend shows “young people are choosing to be in a place that nurtures them, that recognizes who they are in the world.”