Report: College transfers are common, follow complex patterns

  • July 10, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Students who transfer from one college to another have become “the new normal,” confounding efforts to track and measure institutional success, says a new report by Indiana University’s Project on Academic Success and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The report, "Transfer and Mobility: A National View of Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2008 Cohort," was released this week. It is the most recent in a series of reports on student transfer and mobility that began in 2012.

Of the 3.6 million students who entered college for the first time in fall 2008, 37.2 percent transferred to a different institution at least once within six years, the report says. Of students who transferred, almost half changed their institution more than once. Counting multiple moves, the students transferred from one institution to another 2.4 million times from 2008 to 2014.

Phoebe Khasiala Wakhungu, project manager with the Project on Academic Success and co-author of the report, said it paints a complex picture of student mobility in which frequent transfers make it difficult to assign responsibility to colleges and universities for whether students graduate.

“With more and more states adopting performance budgeting systems that reward institutions for their graduation rates, and with the federal government focusing more and more on retention and graduation rates, this report sheds light on one of the most important public policy issues in American postsecondary education today,” Wakhungu said.

“The picture this report creates is that, because of the large number of students who transfer, focusing on persistence and graduation rates at the institution in which students first enroll disadvantages institutions that in some sense were ‘built for mobile students,’” she said.

For example, community colleges play a key role in many students’ college pathways, yet the vast majority of those students don’t earn degrees from community colleges. Nearly a quarter of students who started at a community college in 2008 transferred to a four-year college or university. Yet only one in eight of those who transferred did so after receiving an associate degree or certificate.

The findings may create a growing case for reverse transfer initiatives, which facilitate the transfer of student credits from four-year institutions back to two-year institutions that may be able to award a degree, the report says.

Also, community colleges were the top destination for transfer students from four-year institutions. More than half of those transferring from four-year public universities moved to two-year institutions. Over 40 percent of those who transferred from four-year private colleges headed to community colleges.

Other findings include:

  • Student mobility often involves crossing state lines. Interstate moves accounted for nearly one in five transfers by students who started at community colleges and nearly 25 percent by students who started at four-year public institutions.
  • Students who alternated between full-time and part-time enrollment had the highest transfer rate, suggesting that switching schools and changing enrollment status are both strategies that students employ in reaction to changing life circumstances.
  • Students who were exclusively part-time had the lowest transfer rates, perhaps because jobs or family circumstances made it difficult for them to relocate.
  • Among students who transferred from four-year institutions to community colleges, a quarter were “summer swirlers,” who returned to their starting institution possibly after picking up extra credits.

Authors of the report are Wakhungu and research associates Xin Yuan and Autumn Harrell of the Project on Academic Success; and executive research director Doug Shapiro and associate director Afet Dundar of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Wakhungu and Dundar both have Ph.D. degrees in education policy studies from IU.

Don Hossler, professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy studies, former director of the IU Project on Academic Success and former executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and Sarah B. Martin and Youngsik Hwang of the Project on Academic Success are credited with assistance. The Project on Academic Success is part of the Center for Postsecondary Research in the IU School of Education.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that provides services to colleges and universities. Its participants include more than 3,600 institutions enrolling 98 percent of U.S. students.

The report was supported by a grant from the Lumina Foundation.

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