Transfer enrollment from two-year institutions to four-year bachelor’s degree programs continued to decline during the 2021–22 academic year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Transfer enrollments had already experienced steep decline during the pandemic’s first year, and the new report shows that trend continued into its second.
Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, called the report a “two-year retrospective” on the pandemic’s full effects on transfer rates. The results are concerning—transfer enrollments fell by nearly 14 percent during the pandemic, nearly twice as much as general enrollments fell during the same period—but, Shapiro said, not necessarily surprising. (This paragraph has been updated to correct Shapiro’s title.)
“Transferring during the pandemic is hard, harder than just staying enrolled,” Shapiro said. “Imagine navigating two sets of all the shifting pandemic policies from campus to campus, on top of all the transfer policies, and all that without the benefit of in-person advisers or other campus-based support networks that students would normally have access to.”
Community colleges have been struggling with general enrollment as well, both before and during the pandemic. Enrollment at two-year colleges fell by over 14 percent from 2010 to 2017; from 2019 to 2020, it dropped by another 10 percent. Shapiro said this trend is likely a major contributing factor to the transfer enrollment decline, and that this context makes it less likely that transfer rates will simply revert to pre-pandemic levels in the coming years.
The impact of the pandemic’s second year on transfer enrollment differed in some crucial ways from the first year’s. During the 2020–21 academic year, for example, men experienced the steepest decline in both transfer enrollment and persistence, whereas women fared worse in both of those areas in 2021–22. And whereas one early bright spot of the data from pandemic year one was a surprising increase in upward transfer enrollment among Latinx and Asian American students, those groups experienced declines in year two significant enough to put their transfer rates at a net loss.
“No one expected the pandemic to go on this long,” said Mikyung Ryu, the clearinghouse’s director of research publications. “But the impact is lingering, and some students are better able to cope with that than others in terms of educational planning.”
All transfer pathways experienced an overall decline during the pandemic—from four-year to two-year institutions, or “reverse” transfers; lateral transfers between two-year institutions; and from two- to four-year institutions.
Transfer from two- to four-year institution is the most common type, comprising nearly half of all transfers in 2019. But it was transfers into two-year institutions that bore the brunt of the decline over the two years of the pandemic—an 18 percent decrease in reverse transfers compared to pre-pandemic numbers, and a 21 percent decline in lateral transfers. The study also found that persistence rates for students who do transfer are declining across the board. The drop is far less staggering than overall transfer declines—less than 1 percent nationally—but, Shapiro said, just as concerning.
Shapiro said these trends bode poorly for retention rates at community colleges and four-year institutions alike, which he says is “a problem for all of higher education,” not just two-year institutions.
“We consider these pathways to be important backstops to students at risk of dropping out … and the ability to adapt easily is increasingly critical in these turbulent times,” he said. “These results should be a wake-up call to colleges.”
Equity Challenges Grow
Ryu said the report’s results are particularly troubling for equity in higher education, since community colleges tend to serve the most marginalized students—namely, low-income adult students of color.
John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College at Columbia University, said the two- to four-year transfer system had major equity problems well before the pandemic. The past two years, Fink said, just exacerbated them.
“Even before transfer enrollment rates dropped off the cliff, there were massive challenges to equity, and important ways that racism and classism created barriers for students,” he said.
Fink hopes the transfer enrollment decline does serve as a “wake-up call,” as Shapiro said—especially when it comes to supporting marginalized students.
“Moving forward, what I hope this drop means is that we have a clearer focus on improving transfer enrollment and success for the students who have been the most underserved,” Fink said. “We should measure our success by how well we’re serving those students who have been disproportionately impacted by both the pre-existing challenges in our transfer system as well as the ones we’re seeing through the course of the pandemic.”
Other barriers to transferring, Fink said, are simply due to a lack of resources on the part of community colleges, which tend to be some of the most underfunded public institutions in higher education while serving students who need some of the highest levels of support.
“It’s hard for students to navigate the transfer process or even know how to prepare themselves to do it,” he said. “There might be resources when students are about to transfer, but for many it’s too little, too late.”
But Fink stressed that the onus can’t lie solely with community colleges; four-year institutions, he said, have every reason to invest in attracting and retaining upward transfer students.
“It’s so hard to do this well without investment on the part of four-year institutions,” he said. “But the conventional mind-set there has been, ‘we’ll wait until students are ready for us’ … Community colleges want more engagement.”
Ryu said it’s “hard to predict” whether the decline will continue into a third year based on the report’s findings, partly because the pandemic has thrown a wrench in researchers’ previous understandings of the field.
“Every wisdom gained from studying higher education trends before the pandemic is no longer a good indication of what will happen in the future,” she said.