Dive Brief: 

  • The number of students transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions rose 2.6% year-over-year this fall after being flat in 2019, though other forms of transfer enrollment nosedived, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

  • Transfers between the same level of institution fell 8.3% year-over-year, and transfers of four-year students to community colleges plummeted 18.4%. 

  • The new data belies predictions that the pandemic would spur students at four-year universities to transfer to community colleges, whose overall enrollment dropped more than any other institution type this fall. 

Dive Insight: 

Overall transfer enrollment fell 4.7% year-over-year, according to the preliminary data, which is based on 54% of colleges. That’s on par with an undergraduate enrollment decline of around 4% this fall, driven partly by steep losses at community colleges. 

The pandemic has complicated the transfer process, the researchers note. Students have been subject to oft-changing fall reopening plans and the ongoing economic fallout from the crisis. 

The researchers found racial and ethnic disparities in transfer enrollment at four-year institutions. Asian transfer enrollment rose at four-year nonprofits, while White and Black enrollment fell. Hispanic transfer enrollment rose slightly, by 1.7%, at four-year publics and declined in equal measure at private, four-year nonprofits.

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Natalie Schwartz/Education Dive, data courtesy of National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


The coronavirus has had a disproportionate demographic impact. Black and Hispanic people are dying from the virus at much higher rates than White and Asian people. The former are also more likely to experience job loss during the pandemic. 

Community colleges reported the biggest declines in transfer enrollment of the institution types across the four racial and ethnic groups tracked. While the data bodes well for community college students seeking bachelor’s degrees, it also points to more enrollment challenges at two-year schools, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse’s research arm. 

Two-year public schools face challenges on a few fronts. First-year student enrollment plummeted nearly 23%, according to a separate Clearinghouse report. Transfers from four-year schools to community colleges declined, while transfers in the opposite direction increased. Returning student enrollment also is trending downward. 

Natalie Schwartz/Education Dive, data courtesy of National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Eventually, these issues could trickle into the four-year sector, which Shapiro noted could soon have a smaller pool of transfers from which to draw. “A huge drop in new freshmen at community colleges will have an effect within the next year to two years for potential upward transfers to four-year institutions,” Shapiro said.

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