As a new academic year begins, more than 20 million students are enrolling or re-enrolling in colleges across the country. Many of them have — or will — transfer institutions, often more than once, in moves that are collectively changing higher education in America.
Surge in Community College Funding
In the wake of President Obama’s Free Community College bill, and with the approval of “College Promise” programs that guarantee free two-year college tuition in states such as Oregon and Tennessee, some worry that four-year institutions will face enrollment drops. At present, it’s too early to tell. Understanding if and how increased access to two-year programs influences the makeup of American college graduates will require at least another six years — long enough for the majority of the incoming cohort of students to move through the full cycle of higher education requirements and pitfalls and emerge with (or without) a degree.
Rising Rates of Movement Among College Students
The 2015 National Student Clearinghouse Report on Transfer and Mobility, a comprehensive study published in July by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, tracked the 3.6 million students who entered college for the first time in 2008 and followed them through 2014, and confirmed that the route to a college degree is becoming less and less predictable. Following the Clearinghouse’s first study of such issues in 2012, this latest report found that over one-third of those 3.6 million students (37.2 percent) transferred colleges at least once within six years, with nearly half (45 percent) switching institutions more than once.
More Non-Traditional Students in Data Set
Previous studies of college completion trends have focused on traditional college students — those who begin college immediately after high school, remain enrolled as full-time students through graduation, and make relatively steady progress along the way. The 2015 National Student Clearinghouse Report, however, included not only those enrolled solely as full-time students, but also those registered exclusively as part-time students as well as mixed-enrollment students (enrolled both full-time and part-time). Moreover, while empirical studies usually focus on one transfer pattern at a time (for instance, from community college to a four-year college, or from one four-year college to another), the Clearinghouse Report looks at these patterns more broadly, defining transfer as “any change in a student’s institution or enrollment irrespective of the timing, direction, or location, and regardless of whether any credits were transferred from one institution to another.” This method of analysis provides a more robust account of mobility patterns.
Emergent Trends in Transfer Patterns
The 2015 National Student Clearinghouse Report on Transfer and Mobility revealed that many students rely on a combination of experience at and credentials from two-year and four-year schools to earn a college degree. The report also highlighted the variety of institution types, times of transfer, and geographical locations students explore during their college careers. It found:
The majority of college students spend some time at a community college. More than half (51.3 percent) of the students transferring from a four-year public institution moved to a two-year public institution. For those transferring from four-year private institutions, more than 40 percent went to community colleges.
Transfers happen most often during year two. According to the report, 36.3 percent of full-time college students, 24.9 percent of part-time students, and 37.6 percent of mixed-enrollment students transfer during their second year. The next most common time to transfer is during the third year.
Out-of-state transfers are relatively common. Among students who start in two-year public institutions and make the decision to transfer, almost one in five transfers to a school in a different state. At four-year public institutions, about a quarter of transfer students are enrolled out of state.
Transferring institutions correlates with changing enrollment status. Mixed-enrollment students (those enrolled both full- and part-time) had the highest transfer and mobility rates (53.7 percent). Predictably, the lowest transfer rate (11.9 percent) was found among exclusively part-time students, who tend to be more geographically constrained by finances and family commitments, and most in jeopardy of not completing a post-secondary degree at all.
High rates of “summer swirlers” lead to higher four-year degree completion rates. One quarter of all transfers from four-year institutions to community colleges consisted of students who took summer courses at community colleges and then returned to their starting institutions in the fall term. It is worth noting that this correlates to higher degree completion rates at the starting four-year institution, according to a previous Clearinghouse Report from 2012.
Implications for Students, Institutions, and Policy Makers
The increased mobility among students may in fact be symptomatic of general uncertainty at colleges across the country. As institutions attempt to forge articulation agreements granting that they will accept each other’s courses for credit when students transfer schools, wait to see what kind of state or federal funding they may receive, and face unpredictable enrollment patterns, they alter things like degree offerings and required course sequences, which means students may find that their current institution no longer meets their needs. Thus, colleges’ own transformations may be contributing to heightened student transfer rates as much as they are responding to them.
Whether or not federal and state plans succeed in encouraging higher education attendance and attainment, community colleges will continue to serve a significant proportion of the college student population. That said, their function may be changing. Increasing numbers of students — approximately one in eight — are transferring to four-year schools without receiving a certificate or associate’s degree from the community colleges they first attend, according to the National Student Clearinghouse report. (Their previous report in 2012 found that one in five received a degree before moving on.) In future studies of mobility patterns, tracking selected cohorts of students will be as important as tracking institutional completion rates. If transfer students who began at community colleges are ultimately succeeding at the four-year college level, then state and national funding structures — often tied simply to graduation rates — may need to find more nuanced ways to identify and support the foundational work that two-year colleges are doing.
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