Focus on Transfer Students
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Focus on Transfer Students


In our work on behalf of students, it is common to see a focus on first-generation college students. However, at Hobsons we are about helping all students finish what they start, regardless of whether their journey is through one institution or multiple institutions. Transfer students make up a large, and growing, student population that requires careful attention. 

A recent report sponsored by the Kresge Foundation indicates that the difficulty students face in trying to transfer credits is seen as a major reason students stay in college for so long. On average, students take and pay for 136.5 credits to complete a bachelor’s degree that requires 120 credits. For an associate degree, the average is 80 credits taken as compared to the 60 that are required. And the implications for low-income community college students are more severe – where these students are half as likely to successfully transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree as their higher-income peers. 

The National Center for Education Statistics tracked college students over a period of six years to better understand college student pathways and mobility. The August 2014 report on Transferability of Postsecondary Credit Following Student Transfer or Co-enrollment found:

  • Sixty-five percent of students during that six-year period took courses only at their original institution.
  • Thirty-five percent of students transferred to or co-enrolled during that period.
  • Fifty-eight percent of transfer students initiated at two-year institutions, with 37 percent of students moving from a two-year to a four-year college and 21 percent of students moving from a two-year to another two-year college.

Transfer Origin and Destination Institutions

In 2012, the National Student Clearinghouse published a study which captured the transfer behaviors of the 2006 cohort of first-time students. The study identified the first time students transferred, as well as the originating and destination institutions. This report revealed some interesting facts about where transfer students begin and where they end up.

  • Eighty-two percent of transfer students originated at public colleges and universities: 46 percent originated at community colleges and 36 percent at four-year public institutions.
  • Forty-one percent of transferring community college students move to four-year public institutions. Another 38 percent transfer laterally to other community colleges.
  • Fifty-two percent of all students, who transferred from four-year public institutions, transferred “in reverse,” to two-year public institutions. It is important to keep in mind that these transfers represent students that are taking summer classes at a community college.
  • Ninety percent of transfers for part-time students and 80 percent of transfer for full-time students occur sometime after the first year.  The largest amount of transfer activity occurs during the second year of college.

Momentum and Completion

The NCES study found that of students who did transfer, approximately 40 percent transferred no credits, 28 percent transferred some credits, and 32 percent transferred all previously earned credits in the first transfer. On average, transferring students lost approximately 13 credits following the first transfer. Doing a multivariate study of student characteristics, academic programs, accreditation, and other institutional characteristics, NCES found three factors to be related to the loss of transfer credits:

  1. The poor GPA of the student immediately prior to transfer.
  2. The control of the institution. Students that moved to private for-profit and private nonprofit institutions, generally, have fewer credits accepted than students transferring into public institutions.
  3. Transferring horizontally, in reverse or in swirling patterns, rather than vertically, is associated with a loss of credits.

The research clearly shows that too many students are not able to accomplish their goals. But there are many strategies that can be employed to make transferring a meaningful and productive pathway for students. Consider the following:

  • How can you work with students beginning in high school to mindfully plan for the possibility that the student will likely transfer at some point in their academic career?
  • How can you help students plan for future transfers, including what courses/credits will transfer in or out?
  • How are you ensuring that your transfer students are visible and receive the support they need, particularly when they experience a setback?
  • How can you analyze your data to identify friction points in the system that hinder transfer students?

Technology can play an important factor in helping students succeed, and Hobsons can help. To learn more, visit our website.

John Plunkett

John Plunkett

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