Transfers from two-year programs to four-year colleges fell 11.6% last year

Transfer enrollment–an often overlooked but important pathway to diversifying four-year colleges and universities–has dropped 6.9% since last spring and 16% since 2020, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). Transfers declined across all major racial and ethnic groups, as well as across all age groups except students ages 18 to 20. Students ages 25 to 29 experienced the sharpest decline at 16.2% year-over-year.

In its update, NSCRC also highlights the “major shift” seen in upward transfers, or the number of students moving from two-year colleges to four-year colleges. After holding steady from 2020-21, upward transfers plunged 11.6% in the last year, due in part to a decline in community college enrollment. Upward transfers accounted for 48.5% of all transfers in 2020, according to the research center.

The reversal of recent gains in transfers to four-year institutions and among student populations prevalent at community colleges represents a “constriction of a key path to bachelor’s degree attainment,” says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSCRC. Four-year institutions are losing out on new students who could diversify their campuses, and adult learners, low-income students, and underrepresented minorities are missing out on a bachelor’s degree that could lead to economic mobility.

“I think these trends are here to stay,” Mikyung Ryu, NSCRC’s director of research publications, tells Inside Higher Ed. “And that means long-term consequences that may not be immediately visible, and not just for community colleges.” 

Adding to the concern is the 7.8% increase in continuing transfer enrollment seen at four-year, for-profit colleges as continuing transfers fell across all other institution types. For-profit institutions have the highest loan debt averages compared to public and nonprofit institutions and also have the lowest ROI for low-income students, says Justin Ortagus, professor of higher education at the University of Florida. The transfer gains concentrated at for-profit institutions are worrisome, Ortagus tells Higher Ed Dive. “It’s just a concerning development when you think about equity and quality in higher education.”

Related: Seeing shifting landscape for-profit colleges ramp up marketing >

Four-year institutions reach out

Meanwhile, several flagship four-year public institutions like the University of Virginia (UVA) are prioritizing outreach to community college students in hopes of diversifying their campus community and expanding opportunities for underrepresented students, The Washington Post reports. In a profile of UVA’s transfer admissions process, the Post points out that the university’s transfer admissions rate—40% in 2020—is far higher than its 23% acceptance rate for first-time, first-year students. Twenty-six percent of those transfer students were Pell-Grant eligible, twice the share of Pell-eligible first-year students. UVA’s transfer students were also more likely than first-year students to be first-generation or underrepresented minorities.

To increase upward transfer enrollment, UVA is establishing partnerships with community colleges. Students at those schools are guaranteed admission to UVA’s schools of nursing or engineering, or its college of arts and sciences, if they meet certain course and grade requirements. Partnerships between UVA and community colleges “helps us fulfill our mission as a public university…[as] a place of opportunity, a place of social mobility,” UVA President James E. Ryan tells the Post.

Related: Transfer students succeed at elite colleges, but few get the chance to enroll >

An incentive to reform the transfer system?

Recent transfer enrollment declines may spur much-needed improvements to a transfer system that often excludes those who have the potential to succeed, says Ed Venit, managing director of student success research at EAB. Data from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University indicates that 80% of community college students intend to transfer to four-year degree programs, but only 25% of those students transfer within five years.

Reflecting on this missed opportunity, NSCRC’s director Ryu urges institutions to reach out to students of color, adult learners, and nontraditional students to reverse enrollment trends and “provide [students] with the academic and financial support needed for retention once they’re there.”

Related: 6 ways to improve the student transfer process >

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