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Transfer Enrollment Decline Nearly 4 Times Larger than Last Year

Transfer continues in turmoil. A first look of the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has found that overall transfer enrollment is down 7.9 percent this spring, a fall almost four times larger than last spring, when the decline was 2.1 percent. Community colleges were hit the hardest, with a drop of 15.2 percent from last spring, while transfer enrollments at public four-year schools remained "stable."

Upward transfer (when students move from a two-year school to a four-year school) was the lone pathway to see a rise — 3 percent — over pre-pandemic levels. Both reverse (moving from a four-year school to a two-year school) and lateral transfer (moving to the same type of institution) dropped dramatically (-21 percent and -9.2 percent, respectively).

The study examined spring 2021 data from a fixed grouping of institutions that represented nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of the Clearinghouse "universe," covering 8.8 million undergraduate students, of which 532,000 are transfers.

The analysis also included these findings:

  • While cautioning against interpreting race and ethnicity results too finely, since almost 16 percent of students were lacking race/ethnicity data, the Research Center reported that Latinx transfer enrollment showed the strongest growth in the public four-year sector, rising by 5.3 percent; upward transfer grew by 4.4 percent. The overall transfer rate shrank by 6.3 percent, however, due to a drop of 17.9 percent for transfers among Latinx students in two-year public schools.
  • Transfer enrollment in four-year schools also grew for Asian students (by 3.2 percent), compared to an overall decline of 6.5 percent, driven by two-year transfer shrinkage of 16.4 percent.
  • Black student transfer enrollment grew by 1 percent in four-year schools and dropped by 17.7 percent in two-year schools, making for an overall decline of 10.9 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021.
  • White students showed a decline of 7.8 percent year-over-year for four-year publics and 20.3 percent for two-year schools, with an overall drop of 13.9 percent.
  • The results showed that transfer declined for continuing students at twice the rate of returning students (-10.2 percent compared to -4.9 percent, respectively), reflecting, the researchers noted, "a ripple effect of last fall's enrollment shortfalls."
  • Also, gender disparities grew: -13.5 percent for men in 2021 versus -5.9 percent for women, compared to -2.8 percent for men and -1.8 percent for women in spring 2020.

"Transfer enrollment declines this spring are largely attributable to lower enrollment levels last fall and a higher fall-to-spring attrition rate during COVID-19," said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Research Center, in a statement. "As the pandemic continues to shift the postsecondary landscape, colleges and universities would need to address the needs of the students who are most impacted."

Access to the report and an interactive visualization of the data is openly available on the NSC Research Center website. The organization said it expects to release an updated report in June 2021.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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