Why Students Aren’t Transferring

A look at how institutions are implementing new programs to retain students who may otherwise transfer — or leave higher ed altogether.

9 minutes
By: Kristin Markway Shaw

Transfer student enrollment has decreased twice as much as non-transfer enrollment over the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

The September 2022 report on transfer, mobility and persistence found that the rates of enrollment in academic year 2021-2022 were similar across the board, with transfer student enrollment declining 4.9% and non-transfer enrollment falling 4.3%. The greatest decline was in upward transfers – going from a two-year institution to a four-year one. Even students who successfully earn an associate’s degree are not moving on. Their transfer rate has fallen by 10.3% since 2020, with most of those losses coming in 2021-22. Upward transfers without an associate’s degree also fell by 9.3% over the last two years.

“We’re at a moment here after the pandemic. There’s an enrollment crisis, but there’s a college access crisis,” said John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. “There’s a growing questioning of the value of college … And if (community) colleges and their university partners aren’t making it clear what is the path, where is it leading and why it matters to the student, I think it’s going to be hard to build back from this enrollment crisis. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, total enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions peaked in 2010-2011 and has largely plateaued since. The NSC found postsecondary enrollment declined by 4.1% in spring 2022, following a decline of 3.8% in fall 2021. That puts transfer student enrollment in line with these trends, if a bit worse.

A red graph on a blue background showing the trends in enrollment for higher ed students from 1957-2020.

Bright Spots 

Rural-serving institutions (RSIs) had a smaller drop in transfer student enrollment in 2021-22, with only a 2.1% decline. RSIs are defined by the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges and identified based on the percent of the institution’s home county and adjacent counties that are rural, the county’s population size, the adjacency to a metro area and the awards conferred in agriculture, natural resources and parks and recreation.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) also had a rebound of 7.7% in transfer enrollment in year two (21-22), following sharp transfer enrollment declines the previous year. These gains in transfer enrollments were largely found among men. Persistence after transfer was also stable at HBCUs.

Mississippi Valley State University is an HBCU and meets the RSI criteria. Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management Clarence Hayes, Ph.D., said the institution’s transfer student enrollment is up this fall, compared to the last two years. He said most transfer students are local from the Delta area. Although most would be classified as traditional students, these students come from a mix of four-year and two-year institutions. 

Hayes specifically called out the advantage of being an HBCU in recruiting transfer students.

“The hiring of Deion Sanders at Jackson State has put a spotlight on HBCUs. It gives the outside world that doesn’t know a lot about HBCUs an inside look at what we can offer students and future students who are planning to attend or looking to enroll at colleges,” Hayes said. “We are just as competitive as some of the PWIs (predominantly white institutions), and sometimes, we may be a little bit cheaper. Some of the programs that we may offer make our HBCU campuses a bit more attractive.”

As such, the football program at MVSU — as well as other athletic programs — has been a definite driver of transfer student enrollment recently, according to Hayes. To take advantage of that motivator, the admissions office has been partnering with MVSU coaches to connect with students before they enroll.

Hayes also said MVSU has contracted with the outside company Trellis to help with transfer enrollment and student persistence.

“If we have some students who have applied as transfer students but have not finished the process to be admitted, we reach out to them, and then we partner with Trellis to reach out to them because we feel that the more contact that they have with us, the better chance they are to transfer to us,” Hayes said.

Other promising findings in the report were that lateral transfers at public four-year institutions rebounded in 2021 by 1.7% and that upward transfers to highly selective institutions maintained their pre-pandemic level after unusual growth of 8.9% in 2020-21. However, Fink highlighted that this was potentially an access issue in higher ed.

“Basically, if students had the resources and the ability to transfer to a four-year institution, they were able to move ‘up market’ in terms of selectivity,” he said. “Meanwhile, so many students had to leave higher ed; so many students weren’t able to transfer anywhere to even stay enrolling.”

Big Losses 

Although transfer students of all ages decreased since 2020, older students were disproportionately affected. Transfer student enrollment among those older than 20 declined by 16.2% over two years. Those students were also more likely to be transferring; they made up 70% of the transfer student population over the last two years yet also reflect 85% of the transfer declines since the pandemic. Furthermore, the persistence rate for students 21 and older declined by more than 1% each year of the study.

“Even before the pandemic the vertical transfer system didn’t work very well,” Fink said. “Rates of bachelor completion were low, and they’re particularly low for students that can benefit the most from the transfer route. The pandemic seemed to really worsen both the outcomes as well as the disproportionate impact.”

This is in contrast with first-time college students. According to the NSC in June 2022, 75% of students who enrolled in college for the first time in 2020 persisted at any institution in fall 2021. This is just short of the pre-pandemic level of 75.9%.

Overall, the report shows more lateral transfers, likely to primarily online institutions, and less reverse transfer. There’s also decreased persistence at community colleges. And while many students are simply choosing not to enroll at a higher education institution at all, the overall decline in transfer students is likely an effect of many stopping out.

“(Before the pandemic) The two-year institutions were feeling that enrollment crunch. Now with the broad-access four-year institutions having that decrease in transfers, I think there’s even greater awareness that something needs to change to attract more students to transfer in,” Fink said.

Counteracting the Trend 

Despite the data trend, some institutions have managed to increase transfer student enrollment during the last two years. One of the most frequent commonalities among those institutions was a specific partnership with a community college or community college network that provides students with an incentive, such as guaranteed admission, guaranteed credit transfer, exclusive funding or additional support. 

For example, in Mississippi, Hayes highlighted the Complete 2 Compete program as being a draw for transfer students to enroll at MVSU.

“With our students who may have been out a couple years and they’re wanting to transfer in, the state offers a program (Complete 2 Compete) where they are offered a stipend at the end of each semester,” he said.

The state-level program is sponsored by the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning and the Mississippi Community College board. It is available to anyone 21 years and older who has some college experience but has not earned a degree and has been out of college for at least two years.

The University of California system is launching a dual-admissions program in spring 2023. High school seniors who are rejected from UC because they do not meet requirements can instead enroll at a California community college with a conditional admissions offer to one of six UC campuses.

A spokesperson for Western Governors University, a primarily online institution, highlighted their partnerships as being important to their success in enrolling transfer students. She pointed to a NCR report in 2021 that explored the partnership between WGU and Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana) dating back to 2009. In 2017, the two institutions signed an agreement allowing Ivy Tech graduates to start at WGU as a junior, easing the transfer process. As a result, WGU grew its enrollment of Ivy Tech transfer students by 14% in 2020, according tothe report.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University have also partnered on a program called ADVANCE. This gives NOVA students access to resources such as success coaches and co-enrollment at some George Mason classes. Most importantly, ADVANCE students transition right to George Mason after earning their associate’s degree – no additional application needed.

Fink called these programs interesting but limited in their scale and said he has plans to research their efficacy in the future.

“Even if we can’t scale them to the thousands of transfer students out there, what can we learn from what they’re doing?” he said.

Furthermore, the intricacies of these partnerships may not be possible for institutions to implement quickly. What can be done now to grow transfer enrollment this spring or next fall?

Growing Enrollment

Fink said he has heard from many community colleges that they are seeing an increase in calls and contact from four-year institutions. Something as simple as starting to make the connections can also lead to

  • Attending transfer fairs,
  • Visiting a first-year experience course at a community college and talking about building a transfer plan,
  • Building relationships between the departmental faculty,
  • Establishing pre-transfer advising, and
  • Getting dedicated office space at a community college.

Johanna Trovato, Eduventures senior analyst, said transfer student marketing efforts that focus on ease of transfer, financial value of the education and professional outcomes, among others, have been successful.

“Our data shows a pandemic shift from the students who meticulously plan their transfer, and often already know where they want to transfer to, to more students whose transfer plans are driven by circumstance and dissatisfaction at their current school,” Trovato said.

Some of those suggestions overlap with the recommendations in the NCR report on growing transfer enrollment during the pandemic. It highlighted new hires, for example, admissions personnel solely focused on transfer students, and finding new ways to connect with transfer students.

Traditional methods, such as website content and emails, are still very important marketing tools — the two most important according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. However, institutions must make sure those materials are uniquely targeted to transfer students and not just repurposed information. 

“Merely subsuming content for transfer students in content designed for first-time, first-year prospects can frustrate community college students by requiring them to hunt for information. Ensure you’re clearly highlighting your unique admissions process, transfer partnerships, upcoming recruitment and event schedules, and links to transfer-specific materials and resources,” education consultancy EAB noted.

Trovato agreed, saying transfer students are most frustrated by the transfer process, transfer requirements and not enough dedicated advising support.

“Cost and financial aid are the largest concerns for these students,” said Trovato. “So to attract more students, an institution should put more resources towards transfer student advising, financial aid and onboarding.”

Colleges can also take advantage of marketing to previous applicants after NACAC removed a provision of its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices in 2019 that prohibited recruiting students who had enrolled elsewhere. Trovato said remarketing to previous applicants does drive high engagement but not necessarily among potential transfer students. Many institutions still follow the previous NACAC provisions as an honor code. 

“What is more common, however, and less ethically questionable, is institutions that continue to communicate with students who were in their freshman pipeline but ultimately enrolled at a community college,” Trovato said.

On the other hand, some institutions have recently sent email campaigns to enrolled students and postcards to parents of enrolled students to encourage transfer, and the use of those tactics is growing.

Kristin Markway Shaw

Kristin Markway Shaw


Kristin Markway Shaw is a freelance journalist and editor. She previously taught journalism and public relations at a private four-year university and has worked in marketing and social media roles for public and private institutions.

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