Transfer Enrollment Plunged During Pandemic

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  • Spring transfer enrollment saw the largest year-over-year decline since the pandemic began.
  • Community colleges were most affected by pandemic-related enrollment declines.
  • Experts worry this may lead to more students abandoning their education permanently.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted college enrollment. During the spring 2021 semester, total undergraduate enrollment fell 6.5% in the U.S. This decline was expected during a year of shutdowns, remote learning, and growing expenses, which led students to postpone plans of furthering their education.

According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment among transfer students at two- and four-year colleges fell at an even greater rate, decreasing by 9.6% in the largest year-over-year decline since the start of the pandemic.

The report tracked multiple transfer enrollment pathways — including transfers from two-year colleges to four-year institutions, reverse transfers, and lateral transfers made by students over the last year — and found that transfers to community colleges were most threatened by the pandemic.

Enrollment at Community Colleges Hit the Hardest

Earlier this year, it was widely reported that total enrollment at U.S. community colleges was on a steep decline due to the circumstances of COVID-19. At the time, community college students were overwhelmingly abandoning their education plans at more than double the rate of their peers at four-year institutions.

Based on the new data, it appears that transfer enrollment at community colleges is bearing the brunt of pandemic-related enrollment declines. This spring, overall transfer enrollment at public two-year institutions plunged 16.3%.

Transfer enrollment at public four-year institutions was significantly less affected by the pandemic, decreasing only 1.5% in the spring compared to the previous year.

As enrollment declines at community colleges continue, some experts worry about the schools losing some of these students permanently. The fear is that these students' continued deferral of their education will also defer their chances at opportunities and financial success later on.

Other experts, however, have tried to look at the positives and stress that the numbers only tell part of the story.

"While we did lose a lot of students during the pandemic, it's important to remember that a lot of our students stayed," said Martha Purham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

“While we did lose a lot of students during the pandemic, it’s important to remember that a lot of our students stayed.”
Martha Purham, American Association of Community Colleges

Quotation mark

"Despite the overwhelming obstacles they faced — in some cases they had no internet, in other cases no computers, no housing, no food — they still stayed on their [education] pathway."

Still, the current declines in community college enrollment were mostly unexpected by experts, according to Purham. The general belief was that enrollment in public two-year institutions could potentially boom as it had during the last recession.

This leaves a lot of work to be done to shift enrollment in a positive direction. Schools are working on ways to revive interest in community colleges and hope that current policy initiatives, like free college, will help.

Declines in Transfers Affect Most Racial and Ethnic Groups

Last fall, overall college transfer enrollment fell most sharply among Black students, according to the latest report. In spring 2021, however, transfer enrollment was down more than 10% across almost all racial and ethnic groups. Only declines in transfer enrollment among Asian students remained comparable to those seen pre-pandemic.

These slumps in overall transfer enrollment were most noticeable among two- and four-year students who continued enrollment from fall 2020.

During the pandemic, declines in continuing transfer enrollment among Black students almost doubled, and among Latino/a students almost tripled.

Still, far more differences in transfer enrollment were noted between public two- and four-year institutions. All racial and ethnic groups either had minimal decreases or small increases in transfer enrollment at public four-year colleges.

At public two-year colleges, however, the number of Black and Latino/a transfer students fell significantly this spring. The rate of decline among Black students was 15.4%, compared to 3.9% the previous year. Meanwhile, enrollment fell 19% among Latino/a transfer students — more than six times the rate before the pandemic.

Upward Transfers Increased During Pandemic

The only transfer pathway to rise during the pandemic was students who moved from two-year colleges to four-year colleges, known as an upward transfer. These accounted for 34.2% of all transfer pathways, the report found.

The growth in upward transfers this spring "was entirely led" by a 7.3% increase in continuing female students, according to the report. Previously, transfer enrollment among continuing female students was declining at a slightly higher rate than that of men.

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