Transfer enrollment rises, with large gains among underrepresented students

As undergraduate college enrollment slowly recovered in Fall 2023 from declines that occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of transfer students also grew, especially among students from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The report, Transfer and Progress, analyzed the transfer behavior of 11.7 million students in Fall 2023 from a fixed set of institutions that have been submitting data consistently since Fall 2021, accounting for approximately 89% of institutions that report to the Clearinghouse. Non-first-year transfer students represented 13.2% of all continuing and returning undergraduates (or currently enrolled students who were also enrolled in the previous semester and those students returning to a postsecondary program after stopping out) in Fall 2023, a growth of 12.5% over Fall 2022 numbers.

The number of undergraduates who transferred to a new institution last fall increased by 5.3% compared to the previous year. The rise in transfer consisted of both continuing students (+6.5%) and returning stopped-out students (+3.7%). Transfer enrollment rose for all age groups, as well as across genders.

Related: What’s preventing stopped-out students from returning to campus? >

Influence of upward, returning transfers

Although enrollment grew across all transfer pathways, upward transfers (or transfers from two- to four-year institutions) drove transfer enrollment growth, as upward transfers increased by 39,000 students (+7.7%) over the previous year. Students transferring from community college made up 95% of the upward transfers, while the remaining 5% were transfers from two-year private institutions or online colleges.

Upward transfers increased the most at very competitive (typically accepting between 50% and 75% of applicants) and at highly selective institutions (which admit fewer than half of their applicants), rising 13.1% and 7.8%, respectively, Higher Ed Dive reports. Upward transfer growth also rose among students from community college in rural communities and towns (+12.1%) and those with a focus on vocational training (13.9%).

“What we can say pretty confidently is that student mobility is increasing over all, especially at community colleges,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, tells Inside Higher Ed. “And that means that students are taking advantage of more options for finding the best program and the best institution fit for their needs.”

Just over half, or 51.2%, of returning students enrolled in a different institution than where they last attended, up from 44.4% in 2021, with the increase in returning transfer students driven by students transferring laterally to two- or four-year institutions. The majority (54.1%) of students who transferred to new schools also changed their major, with 82% of Liberal Arts transfer students changing their major, compared to 61.7% of STEM transfer students. Most returning transfers headed to community college (+6.0%), primarily online institutions (+12.6%), and private for-profit institutions (+20.7%).

Related: Early application numbers show increases, especially among students from underrepresented backgrounds >

Rise in transfer students from underrepresented backgrounds

Black and Latine students showed the largest transfer increases year-over-year compared to students from other ethnic and racial groups, rising 7.8% and 5.0%, respectively. Black transfer student growth was driven by returning students, while the increase in Latine transfer students was led by continuing students. 

Highly selective four-year colleges saw a rise in transfer students from middle- and low-income neighborhoods (+13.3% and 20.4%, respectively). However, students from neighborhoods with household incomes in the top 20% made up the majority of transfers to highly selective institutions.

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