Is College Transfer the “New Normal?”

This article is an update of our 2015 article about transfer students.

Gone are the days when almost all college students begin and end their college career in four years at a single institution.  Many parents, and their students, still imagine that scenario as students engage in the admissions process and agonize over finding just the right college or university for them.  Most see themselves graduating from there at the end of four years.

We now know that fewer and fewer students are completing their college degree in four years.  Five years is now closer to the national average, with many students taking longer than that. College transfer may, but is not necessarily, a factor in why students may take longer to graduate.

Like so many other things, the number of students enrolling in college and transferring to a new college experienced a large dip during the pandemic. Now a new report has been released indicating that numbers are beginning to rebound.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a non-profit organization based in Virginia tracked 11.7 million students who were enrolled in college in the fall of 2023. They looked at the number of students who moved to a new institution prior to completing their bachelor’s degree.  Their findings are certainly important for institutions and policymakers, but may also be important in helping parents be prepared for that moment when their student comes home to say, “Mom and Dad, I want to transfer.”

According to the 2024 Annual Transfer and Progress Report, The number of students who transferred into a new institution in fall 2023 grew 5.3 percent compared to fall 2022. Transfers represented 13.2 percent of all continuing and returning undergraduates, up from 12.5 percent last year.” (Continuing and returning students indicates non-first-year students.)

According to the report, nearly 8% of these transfers were “upward” transfers, from 2-year to 4-year institutions. The report also found that “disadvantaged students, including those from lower-income backgrounds, Black and Hispanic groups, and from rural community colleges saw larger increases in transfer enrollment.” Another finding indicated that over 54% of those students who transferred also changed their major.

Why should all of this matter to you as a college parent?  It may not.  Your student may be a student who finds the right institution, settles in to their major, is successful, and graduates in four years.  Many, many students do just that.  But being aware that an increasing number of students are likely to transfer, will help you be prepared if or when your student decides a move is desirable.  Being aware of the complexity of student mobility, transfer, and movement, may help you support your student as they think about their path to success – and help both you and your student realize that they are not alone.

Parents and students should also consider, during the admissions process, that students who transfer are not included in college completion rates.  As you look at retention and graduation rates of colleges, keep in mind the high degree of movement by students – for many reasons – over which institutions may have no control. A college may have a high number of incoming transfer students who thrive and complete their degrees, but who are not included in retention and graduation rates. Those numbers are based solely on first-time first-year incoming students.

Students on the move may certainly be the “new normal” and parents need to be prepared to go along for the ride.

Related articles:

Parenting Your College Transfer Student: Navigating the Decision, the Process, and the Transition

Why Your College Transfer Student Needs Your Support

Why Your Transfer Student May Be in Shock

What Is a College Articulation Agreement?

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