This year’s transfer and mobility report from the National Student Clearinghouse contains good news and troubling news. While young students and four-year colleges saw an increase in transfers and transfer stability in fall 2021, the numbers for community colleges, returning students, and female students took a hit.
This report is the second to study the effects of the pandemic on transfer enrollment and builds on the Clearinghouse’s latest report detailing the continued enrollment decline in higher education. Since fall 2020, over one million potential students have elected not to enroll in college, with community colleges bearing the brunt of the loss.
“Enrollment has been disrupted, period,” said Dr. Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the Clearinghouse. “Those who stopped out for one semester or longer continued to stay out.”
Over 19,300 continuing students (2.3%) were able to successfully transfer this year. But students trying to return to education after a period of stopping out saw a 5.8% decrease in transfers, just under 36,000 students.
The only sector of students that was able to completely recover from fall 2020 losses were those aged 18 to 20. That recovery was consistent through all types of transfer, whether it was upward, from a two-year into a four-year, lateral, a two-year to another two-year, or reverse, four-year to two-year.
“Transfer growth is driven by young students,” said Ryu. “Compared to older adults that have family duties, the 18- to 20-year-old feels more comfortable to remain as a student. And they may have more resources, relative to their older peers.”
For many potential students, the choice between attending school or accepting a well-paying job isn’t really a choice at all. Studies have shown that it becomes harder for students to return to school the longer they stay away.
“A lot of [students] are faced with a job market that has much more favorable conditions for entry level work,” said Dr. Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association for Community Colleges (AACC), an advocacy organization supporting America’s community colleges. “Our college presidents are telling us they’re competing with entry level jobs with starting pay of $18 to $25 an hour.”
The decrease in community college enrollments makes sense, Parham said, when reminded that 72% of community college students are working adults.
“Imagine, they’re working from home, many have children, and now they’re going to school?” asked Parham. “They probably don’t have the bandwidth to tackle that—literally and figuratively.”
This year’s transfer numbers reversed last year’s gender trend. In fall 2021, female students transferred less than their male counterparts. Their transfer enrollments declined by roughly 2.3%, or 18,000 students, while male transfer enrollments increased by 1.2%, or 6,200 students.
“What are the personal needs or requirements for women to continue to enroll?” asked Ryu. “Women students typically hold more family related responsibilities, including day care. Single moms or underserved populations, they may find it more challenging to continue studying.”
Parham said she hopes that the addition of $198 million to the American Rescue Plan, announced last week by Dr. Jill Biden and Dr. Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, will provide an incentive for more students to apply to community college. Those funds are targeted to help students tackle basic need insecurity, like housing and food.
“What the pandemic has taught us is that we can’t predict with any certainty what the enrollments are going to be,” said Parham. “But I think our colleges have used the pandemic in many ways to rethink how they provide student services and outreach efforts. A lot of them have really returned to doing personal outreach, calling students, calling previously enrolled students, talking them through the process. It’s back to basic.”
This analogue versus digital approach could be one way for colleges to tackle their enrollment losses, said Ryu.
“But even before the pandemic started, transfer is a complex and challenging process to navigate through for students,” said Ryu. “We just have to wait and see whether this continued decline will be relieved to some extent, less vulnerable to this pandemic driven environment.”
Liann Herder can be reached at email@example.com.