Transfer Data Stories: Opportunities to Improve Transfer Enrollment and Outcomes

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If you’ve read this blog over the past few months, you might have been struck by this statistic: the vast majority of community college students—80 percent or so—want to earn a bachelor’s degree. Yet only around 15 percent do, according to the latest report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Over the past weeks, we’ve considered how to make transfer more of an institutional priority, rethink transfer from the student perspective, move beyond articulation agreements, build better pathways and program maps, connect dual enrollment to transfer paths, strengthen our advising functions, and adopt new technologies.

You might be left wondering, after we put all of that into practice, where are all these community college students going to transfer?

Everywhere, it turns out.

We wanted to understand a couple key questions: Which institutions have the capacity to serve more transfer students? Do certain types of institutions—public versus private, highly selective versus open access—have more room than others? So my team asked the clearinghouse to run the numbers. They analyzed enrollment of students who started at four-year nonprofit institutions in fall 2017 and outcomes for those who had started in fall 2014 (the first available cohort to track six years later).

Here’s what we learned:

Most institutions have room to enroll more community college transfer students.

Of the incoming students at four-year institutions, 20 percent, on average, are community college transfers. That sounds promising at first glance—one out of every five new students is a transfer student!—but the overall statistic obscures the wide variation across institutional types. A small number of institutions enroll most of these transfer students. As seen in this chart, fewer than half of public and private institutions have incoming classes that contain more than 20 percent community college transfers.

Public institutions and less selective institutions are the engines for transfer.

Yes, public institutions enroll the majority of community college transfers in terms of the pure volume of students. That makes sense, as public institutions enroll the majority of all students across the country.

But public four-year institutions also enroll a larger share of the community college transfer population, relative to the share of all new students they enroll. As shown in the graphic below, publics enroll 70 percent of all new students and 77 percent of all incoming community college transfer students.

We found a similar trend by selectivity: The 177 most selective institutions (the “most competitive” and “highly competitive” schools in the graphic below) enroll 17 percent of all incoming students—but only 8 percent of all incoming transfer students.

These numbers suggest that most private institutions and highly selective institutions (public as well as private) could be doing more to welcome more transfer students to their campuses.

Most types of institutions have an opportunity to improve outcomes for transfer students.

The good news is that the majority of community college transfers—around 66 percent—eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. (By comparison, 63 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate from their original institution within six years.) This graduation rate shows that community college transfers are highly motivated and capable students.

The not-so-good news: 26 percent of transfers drop out without earning a bachelor’s degree. We need to improve these outcomes across the board, but especially at private institutions, where the average six-year graduation rate for transfer students is 50 percent. That compares to 63 percent at public schools.

Private institutions should audit themselves to determine why transfer students are less successful than at their public peers. A few hypotheses based on our years of interviewing students, faculty and administrators: higher prices paired with insufficient financial aid, fewer agreements to accept and apply credits to programs of study, and small numbers of transfer students already enrolled, leading those who do transfer to feel out of place.

By focusing on sweeping national trends, we sometimes lose sight of the individuals at the heart of the numbers. In this case, the community college students who have experience working, taking care of families or serving in the military; students who are likely to be people of color, experiencing poverty and the first in their families to go to college; students who will be the leaders and workers of the future.

By parsing these data, we want to prompt urgent discussions about how to improve these students’ transfer journeys—and ultimately the trajectory of their lives. I know we’re already overwhelmed by an avalanche of higher ed data, but understanding these transfer figures is critical to making pressing reforms that will impact thousands of students, as well as our economy and civil society.

For the complete visualizations of these findings, check out the “Transfer Students at a Glance” infographic series on the college excellence program website. We also encourage campus leaders to rerun these analyses for your student populations. As much as possible, leaders should disaggregate the data by students’ race and income.


Gelsey Mehl is a senior program manager at the Aspen Institute college excellence program, leading research on transfer and dual enrollment.

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