Maggie Vasquez was facing the common tangle of college transfer issues as she temporarily shifted back to community college from a big state university and then tried to move on to a more selective private school, hoping also to bring along several dual-enrollment and Advanced Placement credits from high school.
“It was very, very complicated,” she said, noting that while she had cobbled together enough credits to get an associate degree, she was worried about the next step. “It is terrible to sit down and try to figure out what I’ll get credit for, what I need to take, and how to get all the records from each school, including high school.”
During counseling sessions that she says were limited and often ineffective, Vasquez was at times poorly advised to take classes that couldn’t transfer and given the impression she was “behind” because of choices she made, which Vasquez said was defeating. Clear pathways, courses and credits that aligned, and good advice and information were hard to find.
Then the pandemic hit, and things got worse.
Vasquez, 20, and a 4.0 student, found classes at the community college in her hometown of Kansas City were all online and somewhat limited, as was support she needed. She did not want to return to the University of Missouri, where she had gone after high school graduation but found was a bad fit for her. And the selective private institutions she was interested in were shut down and hard to reach.
“You really have to sit down with someone who knows what’s going on and sort through what you can get credit for and what you need. That wasn’t happening. I just took time off this fall and went back to work at my old high school job.”
She still plans to attend a different four-year higher education institution to complete a degree in business and pre-law but says exploring schools as a college junior is difficult when admission personnel are often focused on incoming freshmen.
“Even tours just don’t cover the things I need to know or am interested in,” she says. “And I wish there were systems that made credits and classes connect.”
David Follick, assistant vice president of academic student services at Nassau Community College (NCC) on Long Island in New York, says that while it appears transfers may not have declined as much as expected during the pandemic, the crisis perhaps further highlighted the difficulties students like Vasquez confront.
He says that along with structural changes that state policymakers and institutions can put in place to make the process smoother and simpler, information and planning are key, giving students a better understanding of pathways for transferring and support if they undertake it.
“We are a transfer-heavy school and help to make the process easy, but I’ve found that students need to really plan ahead,” said Follick, who is also co-chair of the NACAC special interest group dealing with transfer students. “They need to learn about articulation agreements and what credits transfer. They need to do their homework and then those of us in higher education need to make that process easier and clearer for them.”
Major strides have been made in structural changes to streamline transfers, but like everything else in higher education, the transfer process was ground down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Any student who was considering a transfer in March 2020, when the world closed down, most likely reconsidered in the fall when some schools were still not certain of their health protocols—or whether they could ensure their students would be kept healthy during the pandemic,” says Cheri Barad, an education consultant based in Overland Park, Kansas.
New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that upward transfers, especially for more traditional student groups, dropped 1 percent in 2020-21 although they previously had been rising. There were significant declines in lateral and reverse transfers, about 12 and 16 percent, respectively. In all, transfer enrollment totaled 2.1 million, down 191,500 students, or about 8 percent, from the prior year.
The report also shows that transfers for male students fell about 12 percent while only about 6 percent for female students. Black students had the highest loss of nearly 13 percent, while about 8 percent fewer Latinx students transferred and transfer rates for Native American and Asian students dropped by 10 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
It also noted that while stop outs of transferring students had been declining before the pandemic, they jumped up 5.2 percent in the last academic year.
The data also showed that more students transferred to selective institutions during the last academic year. The number of those students transferring went up more than 10 percent.
Barad believes as the pandemic wanes and more states and institutions embrace transfer students, the numbers will improve.
“I do believe the number of transfer applications will come back, but it could take a year or two. The current college freshmen and sophomores are just getting used to being in the college community and they are still trying to get back to normal, which may not be likely for some time.”
Even prior to the pandemic, however, several problems with the transfer process had been identified. A report released in July backed by leading educators painted a challenging path for transfer students that other experts have been pointing to for years.
“Today’s students are highly mobile, but postsecondary and workforce practices, policies, technologies and data systems haven’t kept up with changing patterns in where and how they learn,” authors of The Transfer Reset report noted. “Most transfer students face long odds of achieving their goals. While 80 percent of students entering community college desire a bachelor’s degree, only 14 percent have earned one within six years. And, historically, marginalized students who face systemic barriers to degree completion are most harmed by transfer inefficiencies.”
The report notes that data from the US Government Accountability Office shows students lose an estimated 43 percent of their credits upon transfer to a new institution.
“Beyond the extra cost to themselves and taxpayers, these students pay a ‘transfer penalty’ of extended time to degree completion and accumulation of more credits than needed to graduate. Such dismal outcomes and rife inefficiency should be a wake-up call to us all.”
Barad and other experts point out that there are, however, advantages to transferring and it has become more broadly accepted—even promoted by some as a proactive strategy rather than a stop-gap measure.
Students can take lower-level classes and explore college and careers for less money, often closer to home. They are likely to have smaller classes and closer relationships with faculty.
“Introduction to psychology is similar everywhere,” says Follick. “Freud is Freud and any good college can provide fundamental course material that is pretty similar at any level.”
Transfer students also now may find that colleges seek them out—knowing the students have experienced college life and academics and can handle the rigor, making them good bets to be persistent, successful students.
As transfer students have become a focus for higher education, community colleges have embraced them and promoted transfer pathways while fouryear institutions have turned to transfer students to bolster sagging enrollment and attract more nontraditional students. Employers, too, have sought better, smoother structures that provide them with trained workers faster or can upgrade the skills of their employees.
Students should understand that a wide range of strategies have been undertaken by colleges to make the process simpler, according to Lexi Anderson, assistant director at the Education Commission of the States (ECS), who has closely tracked efforts at the state level to make the transfer process smoother.
“Transfer is already a very ambiguous process with many roadblocks, and the pandemic only exacerbated issues in transfer pathways,” she says. “However, states have used the time during the pandemic to refocus on how to break down transfer barriers and what innovations could alleviate current structural issues.”
She says examples include using blockchain technology to create learner and employment records and incorporating more prior learning assessment opportunities.
Anderson has examined four other key areas identified as critical to improving the transfer process where states also have made strides:
Anderson says since she did a detailed review of state policy about two years ago, 38 states now have a set of core courses that transfer, 35 have guaranteed transfer of an associate degree to state universities, and 22 have a reverse transfer policy.
Anderson notes that research by Education Northwest (EN) also indicates that states are seeing that more counseling and support is needed, and are considering policy changes that more rigorously support undecided students who often are the least efficient in handling the transfer process.
“Existing policies do not address the common reasons students lose credit: student uncertainty and resource-constrained advising,” the EN report concludes.
ECS has reported that Louisiana led the country in 2009 with one of the first major pieces of transfer legislation that prioritized admission for transfer students and established a centralized database of courses and course substitutions for all degrees.
Anderson also notes that Florida has been considered a leader in transfer policy. It requires students in associate programs to choose a preferred bachelor’s degree program at a four-year school and early on included transfer rates in performance metrics for schools.
Florida guarantees that a student receiving an associate degree can take all their credits with them to a state four-year public college or university and it has developed transfer agreements with several private institutions. Other states are quickly developing similar structures.
James Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.
Colleges for a variety of reasons are seeking ways to support transfer students who want to attend their institutions in the first leg of their higher education experience—or come to them by way of a transfer.
In some cases, these students have been vetted by having college experience and are more mature and serious about academics and can boost sagging enrollment, particularly from nontraditional groups. They can also bolster community college enrollment and often bring serious students to the classroom.
Here are some ways colleges at both ends can enhance the chances such students will consider their school and enroll.
Understand the policies about transfers in your state and work to change them if problems with the system can be addressed. Make sure admission staff members, counselors, others working with students, and the students themselves have access to good information about things like articulation agreements.
Transfer students often have had different life and academic experiences and colleges should intentionally plan for that as they recruit them and bring them to campus.
“For many transfer students, the focus of their search for a new college will likely be very different from their initial search as high school seniors,” says Kristina Dooley, founder and president of Estrella Consulting in Hudson, Ohio. “For example, many transferees are seeking a new institution because the social environment at their original college might not be quite what they had expected. If students are transferring to a large, state institution from a smaller or mid-sized school, it would be beneficial for the institution to offer some orientation sessions specifically geared toward how students can seek support in a new environment.”
Others note that older transfer students may not be as concerned about dorms, student services, or extra academic features as they are about the specifics of courses in their major. Dooley recommends allowing them to shadow students in their projected major. At the same time, provide specific housing information tailored for them if appropriate.
The key, experts say, is recognizing that transfer students may have different, unique experiences and concerns.
Dooley notes that colleges should be intentional about recruiting transfer students by explaining how they will accommodate them.
“If a college allows transfers into programs that other institutions typically don’t, for example, they should highlight that,” she says, noting that there are several ways colleges can show they are “transfer-friendly.”
“Use those efforts as a marketing tool. In promotional materials, highlight that students entering as transfers will get a customized orientation experience based on what type of school they might be transferring from. This could be attractive to students and parents who may feel intimidated by a drastic shift in environment, perhaps going from a larger school to a smaller one.”
Other experts suggest creating a “special admit” program for denied first-year students, which makes a connection to transfer students who want to be at your institution but went elsewhere initially. It might also be possible to identify students who have been admitted but went to community college first—and recruit them.
The American Council on Education (ACE) spelled out six recommendations for colleges related to transfer students, and the first was to “prioritize the award of transfer credit and credit for prior learning.”
Experts recommend making credit evaluations a priority with any interested transfer students and doing them before any other application procedures. Admission staffs and others should be familiar with transferring credits so they can make an accurate evaluation.
“Students hesitate to transfer because they worry about the number of credits that may be transferable, as well as not being able to pursue a specific major as a transfer,” says Dooley, noting that it is typically students’ primary concern.
ACE recommends colleges be very transparent about how transfers will work, explaining the policies online and providing information about how to navigate the system. They should explain how individual students can get personal guidance about their concerns.
Both sending and receiving colleges should develop relationships with the schools frequently on the other end to improve the flow of information and provide a mechanism for the individual student to get seamless support.
“Forming pathway programs (is) an easy marketing solution, as long as the four-year college spends time cultivating relationships with the faculty and staff at the community college in a specific academic area,” Dooley says. “They could be intentional about working with community colleges to recruit from their programs in areas where it's not typical or easy to transfer into at other institutions, such as nursing or engineering.”
One of ACE’s six recommendations is to not just provide counseling but offer “cross-institutional advising”: “Students are faced with a maze of articulation agreements, state transfer requirements, and institutional policies and practices, as well as a myriad of decisions about how best to complete a degree in their chosen program of study in the most cost- and time-efficient manner. Successful student outcomes will not be possible without quality advising, personalized to the student’s unique situation and degree completion goal.”
Schools should also consider unique ways to offer financial aid and financial aid advising to transfer students, experts say.
Online information should be clear about the transfer policies and provide direct links to more details and the contact information of people who can provide clear information.