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College transfer enrollment plummeted another 7% last year; biggest drops for low-income, female & Asian students

Joshua Bay | July 5, 2023

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Meghan Gallagher/LA School Report

As a Pakistani immigrant and first generation college student, Nabiha Sheikh completed her associate degree from Lone Star College in Texas unaware of how difficult her transfer to a four-year university would be.

Sheikh experienced several hurdles, from losing community college credits to inconsistent academic advising, after transferring twice during the pandemic.

“When COVID hit, a lot of the resources I needed were cut off,” Sheikh said. “It was a bit of a struggle because I didn’t know the system very well, plus my parents never went to school here, so I was lost figuring out this process.”

Nabiha Sheikh

As a South Asian immigrant woman, Sheikh’s experience speaks to the thousands of transfer students from marginalized communities who’ve had a difficult time achieving their dream to earn a four-year degree.

According to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college transfer enrollment declined by 7.5 percentage points in fall 2022 and 14.5 percentage points since fall 2020 — the equivalent of 37,600 and 78,500 students respectively.

The steepest transfer enrollment drops were observed among lower income students who declined by 10.8 percentage points since fall 2019 — the equivalent of 225,200 students.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

There was also a disparate enrollment drop for female transfer students compared to their male counterparts with a decline of 3.5 and 0.7 percentage points respectively in fall 2022 — adding to an overall decline of 9.2 and 3.9 percentage points since fall 2020.

In addition, transfer enrollment fell significantly for Asian, White and Native American students by 8, 6.1 and 3.5 percentage points respectively in fall 2022 — adding to an overall drop of 14.8, 12.2 and 7.8 percentage points since fall 2020.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

“Even before the pandemic, that path from community colleges to four-year institutions was riddled with complexities and barriers that would hamstring even the most persistent students,” Aspen Institute director Tania LaViolet told The 74.

“So when you get the extreme hardships from the last few years and an experience that already isn’t built with you in mind, those things compound…and reflect the data we’re seeing.”

Tania LaViolet (Aspen Institute)

LaViolet said the inequities for lower income students to attend four-year universities needs more attention from policymakers and state leaders.

“We know it isn’t a matter of if the talent is out there,” LaViolet said. “So how can we design better practices that serve the needs of lower income transfers? There are institutions out there who have done it, but the data shows it’s not happening at scale.”

LaViolet also said the disparities in female transfer enrollment doesn’t surprise her.

“Especially for those who are parenting students, who have families to care for and who have jobs, those real life circumstances combined with a challenging educational environment make it difficult for women to realize their educational goals,” LaViolet said.

Jeff Gold (California State University)

Jeff Gold, the associate vice chancellor at the California State University, agreed with LaViolet.

“When a pandemic hits, there’s existential challenges that come first and foremost if you’re caring for a family member, if you’re sick yourself or if you’ve got to go back to work,” Gold told The 74. “But there’s certainly one that’s clear — child rearing responsibilities are disproportionately on the female side.”

Gold also said it’s troubling how transfer enrollment drops are not shared equally by students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“We have to remember that we’re still living in incredibly tumultuous times, so there’s a context behind these numbers and they’re not out of the blue,” Gold told The 74. “So the fact that the drops for our most historically marginalized students are much larger than our other students is incredibly troubling.”

John Fink (Community College Research Center)

John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, pointed out how transfer enrollment drops may “be slowing, but are still moving in the wrong direction.”

Looking forward, Fink believes these enrollment drops have implications for four-year universities that rely on transfer students as a core part of their enrollment strategy.

“Four-year institutions have really taken transfer students for granted,” Fink told The 74. “This really should be a wake up call for them to rethink and focus on how they can better partner with their community colleges.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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