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Predicting a Surge in Pandemic-Induced Student Transfers: Will It Happen?

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Predicting a Surge in Pandemic-Induced Student Transfers: Will It Happen?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed virtually everything we do in higher education. Some of its effects will continue to be felt for several years, while others will change us in permanent ways. The abrupt and total move to online instruction in spring 2020 will likely result in an increased online presence among our institutions’ course offerings. Some quarters have expressed the hope that higher education will move online more exclusively, but there will be a strong push to return to primarily in-person instruction post-COVID. The ultimate permanent change for some of our colleges and universities will be their disappearance from the higher education landscape. This will be the fate primarily of institutions that were on unstable fiscal ground (with eroding enrollments and tuition discounting at play) before the pandemic and that now are overwhelmed by the costs and lost revenues resulting from the pandemic as well as precipitously low enrollments. Some have already closed their doors, and others will likely soon follow.

Enrollment experts will say that to generate acceptably sized starting cohorts, institutions must succeed in recruiting students beyond recent high school graduates. This means institutions will need mixes of international, domestic nonresident, graduate, nondegree, and transfer students. My focus here will be on transfer students. To make what I report as timely as possible, I have used as data sources the 10th edition of Knocking at the College Door from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (Bransberger et al., 2020); the fall posting of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Current Term Enrollment Estimates report (2020) and the December 2020 report entitled COVID-19: Transfer, Mobility, and Progress; and various recent articles and surveys. The Knocking at the College Door report provides projections out to 2037 on the number of high school graduates by source (public or private school), race, and ethnicity. It was based on projections that did not account for the potential impact of COVID-19. A major finding was that, due to an increase in high school graduation rates, institutions will avoid the enrollment “cliff” predicted for 2026–27, with that data point becoming part of gradual enrollment declines that will continue through 2037. The NSCRC (2020b) reports college enrollment estimates according to a number of variables, including institutional type, gender, age group, major, race, and degree level.

The pandemic has raised the transfer student to the forefront as a possible solution to the COVID-19-induced enrollment declines seen on our campuses. Many of our institutions have been making special efforts to recruit students from community colleges (CCs) to fill their enrollment gaps and to improve student diversity. Transferring was also raised in a spring 2020 California Student Aid Commission survey of high school seniors and college students as a way for them to deal with some of the negative consequences of the pandemic. Many students felt it was important to save money and were considering transferring to colleges that were less expensive and closer to home. Those in high school expressed intentions to attend campuses with the same characteristics. Taken together, the impacts predicted a decline in enrollment for the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) systems and a significant increase for the state’s CC system. None of these predictions, however, was accurate. UC enrollments were flat; CSU enrollments went up, bucking the national trend; and CC enrollments plunged (Burke, 2020). Furthermore, a December 2020 report (NSCRC, 2020a) on fall 2020 transfers showed an overall 8.1 percent decrease in total transfers. The rate for four-year to two-year (reverse) transfers was -19.4 percent while the rates for four-year to four-year (lateral) transfers and two-year to four-year (up) transfers were -6.7 and -0.7 percent, respectively.

It is difficult to reconcile the predictions with the data, but the lack of a transfer increase could be due to students changing their minds or an overlap of students who considered transfer within the larger group that failed to return to the CC in the fall. It may also be too early to tell, at least for fall 2021. At my institution transfer applications are significantly behind for spring and fall 2021, but we realize that students in general are delaying decisions. Another explanation might relate to a further reason for student discontent: concern about online learning. To avoid this worry when changing institutions, a student must find a campus that offers face-to-face instruction, which has been next to impossible.

An instructive example from Utah (St. Armour, 2020) supports the suggestion that the online concern is at least partially responsible for the low transfer rate. The state’s two main CCs, Salt Lake and Snow, are two hours apart, with Salt Lake serving older, commuter students and Snow, a rural residential campus, serving low-income, more traditionally aged students. For the fall semester, Salt Lake was down 7.5 percent in enrollment and Snow was up 7.7 percent, with a good deal of the new students coming from a higher-income group (like those found at Salt Lake). Salt Lake was online, while Snow was in person.

Despite a lack of evidence for increased transfers (both up transfers and lateral transfers), recent articles have confidently predicted a surge of intercampus student movement. The sources of the predictions include firms that work with students to facilitate their admission to the college of their choice or transfer to a “better” school (Dickler, 2020). They report significantly increased inquiries about assistance in transferring to higher profile schools. There are also reports (Marcus, 2020) of increased visits to websites of companies that provide course catalogues and evaluate transcripts for transfer purposes. Others expect that there will be increased activity in transfers due to the pandemic and caution our campuses to deal with the age-old problems of effecting transcript review in a timely fashion (Marcus, 2020) and of transferring credit between institutions (Dickler, 2020). Regardless of whether there really is or will be a transfer surge, institutions should work at reviewing and improving their transfer policies and efficiency. Some of them have already done this because recruiting students will become more difficult due to future demographics. There are also the students who currently attend institutions that will not survive the pandemic and who will need new academic homes.

Transfer students present challenges in two ways. Not only must we work to find better ways to attract transfer students to our campuses, but we must also be attentive to the needs of our current students lest they apply for transfer elsewhere. Engaged faculty and proactive advisors are critical in retaining students. Finally, some time ago the National Association for College Admission Counseling adopted a code of ethical behavior that included an agreement among admissions offices not to attempt to recruit students away from other campuses unless students reach out first This part of the code was deemed unlawful by the Department of Justice in 2019 and is no longer in effect (Jaschik, 2019), although admissions offices can decide individually how they will behave. The recommendation here is to be vigilant; a campus facing dire circumstances could decide to abrogate the practice to survive.

Let us return to the question posed in the title: Will there be a surge of transfer students starting in fall 2021? To make predictions more specific (I am not considering any changes that may come forth from the Biden administration), we will consider the two sources of transfer students: up transfers from CCs and lateral transfers from other four-year institutions, separately. CC transfers regularly move to four-year institutions in predictable percentages. They will perhaps be distributed among four-year institutions in different patterns. Their overall number will be smaller due to the decline in CC continuing student enrollment for fall of 2020. For fall 2022, there will a sharp decline due to the devastating 19.1 percent drop in CC beginners this past fall. Preliminary data (Lannan, 2021) indicate that there will be another loss of CC beginners starting in fall 2021, a situation that predicts a further erosion of transfer numbers in 2023.

I believe the reason for the present lack of lateral transfer growth is that students will transfer only if their current institutions don’t return to in-person instruction. We should know the answer by March or April, when transfer applications for fall are due. In the meantime, campuses will have to declare their intentions for in-person fall course delivery to retain or re-attract their students and recruit new students from other campuses. The one area where institutions will benefit from additional students is in transfers from institutions that have shuttered due to the pandemic.

Whether or not the transfer surge takes place should not affect an institution’s plan for working to improve the transfer process. Transfers can still be helpful in adding or improving another stream in student recruitment.

In doing background research for this article, I of course came across much data and many stories (Dimino, 2020) about how our institutions mistreat and short-change students when it comes to accepting transfer credit. Criticism has come from federal and state governments, external educational organizations, and university personnel who work in student service areas. Having done this work for a large department for many years, I have some examples of my own that provide an alternative view of the problem. Let me just say at this point that the process is not a simple one. I will have more to say in a subsequent article.


Bransberger, P., Falkenstern, C., & Lane, P. (2020, December 15). Knocking at the college door (10th ed.). https://knocking.wiche.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2020/12/Knocking-pdf-for-website.pdf

Burke, M. (2020, November 22). University of California enrollment remains flat amid pandemic. WTVU Fox. https://www.ktvu.com/news/university-of-california-enrollment-remains-flat-amid-pandemic

California Student Aid Commission. (2020, July). COVID-19 student survey. https://www.csac.ca.gov/survey2020

Dickler, J. (2020, September 28). College acceptance rates for transfer students may rise due to coronavirus. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/28/college-acceptance-rates-rise-for-transfer-students-due-to-coronavirus.html

Dimino, M. (2020, December 7). College transfer in the COVID-19 era: Expectations vs. reality. Third Way. https://www.thirdway.org/memo/college-transfer-in-the-covid-19-era-expectations-vs-reality

Jaschik, S. (2019, September 30). NACAC agrees to change its code of ethics. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2019/09/30/nacac-agrees-change-its-code-ethics

Lannan, K. (2021, January 26). Data points to second year of college enrollment decline. State House News Service. https://www.wwlp.com/news/state-politics/data-points-to-second-year-of-college-enrollment-decline

Marcus, J. (2020, October 9). Strapped for students, colleges finally begin to clear transfer logjam. The Hechinger Report. https://hechingerreport.org/strapped-for-students-colleges-finally-begin-to-clear-transfer-logjam

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.(2020a, December 21). COVID-19: Transfer, mobility, and progress. https://nscresearchcenter.org/transfer-mobility-and-progress

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2020b, December 17). Current term enrollment estimates. https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates

St. Armour, M. (2020, November 19). Who’s up, who’s down and why. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/11/19/community-college-enrollments-down-nationally-not-everywhere

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of the Department of Biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.


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