student success

The challenges and opportunities of college transfer student retention

Jo Hillman

October 23, 2012

Transfer students transferred from one school to another in order to complete their degree. Many students transfer from a two-year community college to a four-year university in order to complete their B.A. or B.S.Transfer students are a growing subpopulation on campuses of all types. Studies have shown significant student mobility among two-year and four-year campuses. This creates an obligation for schools to monitor transfer students and to support them as they seek to refine their education and career goals.

Transfer and Mobility: A National View of Pre-Degree Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions is one report that offers interesting insights on student mobility. It is the second Signature Report™ of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, completed in cooperation with the Project on Academic Success at Indiana University. The study reviews the mobility patterns of 2.8 million full- and part-time students, and it includes students at public and private nonprofit and for-profit institutions.

The study finds that, at nonprofit schools (both two-year and four-year), fully one-third of two- and four-year students transfer to another institution within a five-year period. The mobility rate drops below 20 percent at private, for-profit schools, but is still a significant number of students. (One possible reason for this lower rate may be that students attending these higher-cost, for-profit schools tend to have a greater focus on their career intentions before committing to their programs.)

The study includes vertical transfers (from two-year to four-year, or the reverse) and horizontal (from one school to another of the same type). The figures are also available at the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site (subscription required).

It’s interesting to note that reverse vertical transfers occur more often than one might think. In the third Signature Report, Reverse Transfer: A National View of Student Mobility From Four-Year to Two-Year Institutions, the researchers report that about 50 percent of students who transfer from a four-year institution transfer to a two-year institution. This means that about 10-20 percent of students initially enrolled in a four-year program eventually migrate to a two-year school. Also, regardless of the transfer direction, the highest rate of transfer occurs in a student’s second year.

With so many students transferring, how do their motivations and attitudes differ from first-year students? Noel-Levitz examined these issues in Transfer Students: The Attitudes of Second-Year College Students (an addendum to The Attitudes of Second-Year College Students report). This report provides insights into the attitudes and receptivity of this unique student cohort; it is based on survey results from transfer students nationwide. The data also illustrate strategies you can employ to improve the success of transfer students and help them continue toward completion. Earlier blog posts also discussed strategies and data about how to help transfer students succeed (see  “How can colleges and universities better serve transfer students?” and “Retaining college transfer students:  Analyzing new data on a growing opportunity”).

These data all point to the support transfer students need to persist at their new institutions and complete their educational goals. Like other second-year students, the reality of college life has set in, and they are now aware of the difficulty, cost, and long-term commitment to complete their education. For transfer students, they have the extra challenges of facing these realities at a new institution, all of which likely contribute to soul-searching and second-guessing of the path a student is pursuing.

Campuses need to reach out to transfer students to help them adjust, settle in, and focus on succeeding. While they do not have the same needs and challenges of first-year students, they do need to be connected to resources that will help them succeed as well as connected to the campus, so that they feel less like transfer students and more like they are now at the best possible institution for meeting their educational goals. Grand View University in Iowa designed a robust program, the “Viking EDGE,” to create multiple opportunities for students to connect with the campus community, the broader community, and their life ahead. Their model is featured in a recent Retention Success journal article  (PDF).

How are you reinforcing campus connections and ongoing outreach to transfer and second-year students? What challenges do you face in doing so? I will be discussing ways to help transfer students persist and succeed during a Webinar on November 15, Retaining and Serving Nontraditional Students. Or e-mail me or leave a comment and I would be glad to discuss strategies and insights on serving this growing student population.

For additional information on the above referenced studies by Indiana University and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, please note the following:

“The Project on Academic Success (PAS), part of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, engages in practice- and policy-oriented research toward a better understanding of opportunity and equity in postsecondary education and of the multiple pathways of 21st century students to postsecondary academic success and employment. For more information, visit”

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