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Transfer enrollment steadies in fall 2021 after sharp declines the prior year

Dive Brief: 

  • Transfer enrollment appears to have steadied in fall 2021, declining by less than 1% year over year after dropping sharply the previous fall, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 
  • This fall’s decline represents a loss of 11,300 students. That compares to last fall’s 9.2% year-over-year decrease, which amounted to 137,000 students. 
  • The report found several positive trends among transfer enrollment in fall 2021, which is up 2.3% among continuing students. On the other hand, transfer students returning to higher ed after stopping out of college trended downward, decreasing a further 5.8% in fall 2021.  

Dive Insight: 

The transfer report offers reason for optimism after the clearinghouse recently released bleak final figures for fall 2021 enrollment, which saw undergraduate enrollment slip 3.1% and graduate enrollment decrease 0.4% from the previous fall. The new report is based on data analyzing the enrollment patterns of 1.3 million transfer students as of Nov. 18. 

Transfer enrollment trends appeared to level off in fall 2021

Year-over-year changes in transfer enrollment by type

“Transfer pathways in fall 2021 show signs of students and campuses working hard to find greater latitude for navigating the pandemic,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement. “Even as total undergraduate enrollment slid further, students who have stayed enrolled are finding ways to adapt to their specific challenges through transfer and mobility.” 

Increased transfers among continuing students were concentrated at private nonprofit four-year institutions, where their enrollment grew 7.7%, and public four-year institutions, where their enrollment rose 1.5%. 

This fall saw large swings in transfer enrollment types. Reverse transfers, where students go from a four-year institution to a two-year college, declined by 0.9% in fall 2021 after plummeting 17.5% the year before. Lateral transfers, where students switch to the same level of institution, similarly leveled off in fall 2021, rising 0.2% compared to a 13.3% decline last year. 

Students ages 18 to 20 saw transfer enrollment growth of 13.6%, fully reversing 2020 declines of 8.7%. All other age groups saw declines, with students ages 25 to 29 having the largest drop of 13.8%. 

Other negative trends also persisted this fall. 

Upward transfer, when students switch from a two-year college to a four-year institution, continued to decline, falling 1.6%. Yet not all institutions suffered from these trends, with very competitive and highly selective colleges seeing upward transfers grow 4% and 2.7%, respectively.


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