Despite Hurdles, Students Keep Switching Colleges

July 07, 2015

Some 3.6 million students entered college for the first time in the fall of 2008, at the height of the Great Recession. Over the next six years, they transferred 2.4 million times, ricocheting between two- and four-year public and private colleges, often across state lines, according to a report being released Tuesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

"This has huge implications for the growing number of states with performance-based funding," Afet Dundar, associate director of the research center and one of the report’s authors, said in an interview. Such formulas reward or penalize colleges based in part on the number of students they graduate or retain from year to year.

Without taking transfers into consideration, "these students are going to be left out of the calculations," Ms. Dundar said. Meanwhile, colleges could be financially penalized for successfully launching the academic careers of students who went on to graduate elsewhere.

More than a third of the students who started in the fall of 2008 transferred at least once by the summer of 2014, the report says.

Of those who transferred, almost half switched more than once.

The transfer statistics have changed little since the clearinghouse’s 2012 report, which said that a third of students who started in the fall of 2006 had transferred within five years.

Because students often lose credits and take longer to graduate after transferring, advisers may try to discourage them from moving.

"Given how often students are transferring, that advice isn’t realistic," Ms. Dundar said. Instead, "we need to figure out how to make those transfers hurdle-free."

The report defines student transfer and mobility as any movement from one institution to another, in any direction, whether or not credits are transferred.

Among the other findings:

  • Nearly one in five transfers among students who started in two-year public colleges, and nearly a quarter of transfers from four-year publics, occurred across state lines.
  • Students who had a combination of full- and part-time enrollment had the highest transfer and mobility rates, while exclusively part-time students were the most likely to stay put.
  • More than half of those transferring from four-year public colleges and more than 40 percent of those coming from four-year private colleges transferred to community colleges.

"We usually think about community colleges as points of entry for students," said Ms. Dundar. "But it’s also an important part of the pathway for many students who start in four-year institutions."

About a quarter of those moves happen during the summer, when students enrolled in baccalaureate-granting institutions take classes at their local community colleges to accumulate credits needed for graduation at a lower cost.

The report differentiates, however, between "summer swirl" and permanent transfers.

It also documents the number of students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions without first getting an associate degree. That puts them at risk of ending up empty-handed if they drop out later.

Nearly a quarter of the students who started at a community college transferred to a four-year institution within six years, according to the report. But only one in eight of those transfer students earned a certificate or an associate degree first — down from one in five three years ago.

That highlights the importance of what’s known as reverse transfer, a growing trend in many states in which two- and four-year colleges work together to ensure that students get credit for the courses they need to earn an associate degree.

The National Student Clearinghouse is trying to streamline that process through an automated data-transfer system.

Colleges seeking to bolster their completion numbers can get the most bang for their buck, the clearinghouse noted in an earlier report, by identifying students who dropped out just a few credits shy of a degree.

For all their bouncing around, students in the class that entered in the fall of 2008 struggled to reach the finish line.

Last year the research center reported that only 55 percent of those students had earned degrees or certificates six years later. That was a small decline from the previous year.

Compared with previous years, the students in this cohort were more likely to be older, attend part time, and enroll in community colleges and for-profit institutions.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at