Transfer Student Disparities Grow Across Racial and Ethnic Lines

In the 2020-21 academic year, higher education lost about 191,500 transfer students, or 8.4% compared to the previous year, according to research released today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The COVID-19: Transfer, Mobility, and Progress Academic Year 2020-21 Report, the fifth in the series, reflects the pandemic’s full-blown impact on postsecondary students.

This is the first comprehensive report to assess effects of the pandemic on student transfer during the entire academic year, in which 2.1 million undergraduate students transferred to a college other than their last enrolled institution between July 2020 and June 2021.

“The bright spot for students is the increase in upward transfer into highly selective four-year colleges and universities,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “As transfers overall decline and equity gaps grow, however, this small segment alone cannot erase the larger concerns of diminished opportunity for students.”

How enrollment and transfer patterns continue to persist or diverge going into the upcoming academic year remains to be seen, but the Research Center expects as the pandemic continues, there will likely be further divergences among students and institutions, deepening the longstanding concerns over disparities in student mobility and progress.

2020-2021 Year in Review Highlights include:

• While every pathway of transfer suffered declines, the rate of decline was not the same. Upward transfers, moving from two-year to four-year colleges, held up relatively well, with only a 1.3% decline or about 11,900 student losses. Pandemic-driven losses were more notable in the fall. In fact, upward transfers increased in spring.

• Disparities in upward transfer mobility increased during the pandemic year. Asian and Latinx upward transfers grew (+5.9% and +1.4%, respectively), but Black and Native American upward transfers fell further than pre-pandemic decline (-6.1% and -4.1%, respectively) while White students saw a drop consistent with the pre-pandemic rate of decline (-4.4%).

• Only highly selective institutions expanded their total transfer enrollment for the year, thanks to an unusually large one-year growth in upward transfer (10.3%). This growth included all student groups, irrespective of gender, race, and ethnicity, or transferring within states or into different states (see the figure on the following page).

• Patterns of upward transfer mobility along institutional selectivity, gender, and race and ethnicity shifted over the course of the academic year, most notably changing from highly selective colleges leading the growth of upward transfers in fall 2020, to marked increases in Latinx upward transfers in spring 2021 that were more concentrated at less competitive institutions.

• As upward transfer inflows grow at highly selective colleges and a few leading primarily online institutions, their persistence post-transfer appears to be suffering. In contrast, no significant persistence rate drops attributable to the pandemic are found nationally (all transfer pathways combined).

• Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) had substantial transfer student losses this year (-70,400 students, -11.8%), while Historically Black Colleges and Universities remained largely unaffected. Both saw post-transfer persistence rates falling due to the pandemic, except that HSIs made a small gain in the latter part of the year. Following national patterns, declines in mobility at these institutions were largely driven by men.

By The Numbers (July 2020 – June 2021):

There were approximately 2.1 million transfer students and 11.8 million non-transfer students. Fall transfer students accounted for 64% of the total transfer enrollment for the academic year.

•   Transfer enrollment fell by 191,500 students or -8.4%; non-transfer enrollment fell by 456,100 students or -3.7%. The previous year, transfer enrollment had dropped 69,300 students or -2.9%.

• All transfer pathways were affected but in different ways:

• Lateral transfers fell 114,400 or -11.9% (-38,700 or -3.9% the previous year)

Between 2-year colleges, -83,600 or -15.2% (-27,600 or -4.8% the previous year)

Between 4-year colleges, -30,800 or -7.5% (-11,100 or -2.6% the previous year)

• Reverse transfers fell 65,200 or -16.2% (-19,200 or -4.5% the previous year)

• Upward transfers fell 11,900 or -1.3% (-11,400 or -1.2% the previous year)

Fall – fell by 15,500 or -2.3% (-5,800 or -0.8% the previous year)

Spring – increased by 2,400 or +0.9% (-8,700 or –3.2% the previous year)

• Lateral transfers account for 60% of the total decline (44% in two-year colleges and 16% in four-year colleges); reverse transfers account for 34%; and upward transfers account for 6%.  

• Transfer enrollment fell more for males:

• Males fell by 112,900 or -12.1% (-37,100 or -3.8% the previous year)

• Females fell by 76,200 or -5.8% (-32,200 or -2.4% the previous year)

• Black transfer students fell at the sharpest rate of all groups:

• Whites declined by 86,700 or -9.1% (-59,900 or -5.9% the previous year)

• Blacks declined by 39,500 or -12.9% (-15,400 or -4.8% the previous year)

• Latinx declined by 31,900 or -8.4% (+3,300 or +0.9% the previous year)

• Asians declined by 4,500 or -4.2% (-2,100 or -1.9% the previous year)

• Native Americans declined by 1,900 or -9.9% (-1,000 or -4.9% the previous year)

The COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress Report series, with support from Ascendium Education Group and ECMC Foundation, identifies changes in student transfer pathways that are attributable to the pandemic by using historical data as the pre-pandemic baseline and the Clearinghouse’s current enrollment data. By providing the most up-to-date information about student transfer available online for free, the Research Center enables schools, institutions, organizations, and policymakers to better adapt and serve students, particularly those from the most vulnerable populations, during the pandemic and beyond.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

The Research Center analyzes the data from 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in Title IV degree-granting institutions in the U.S., as of 2018. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries, while maintaining the confidentiality and privacy of student records. To learn more, visit

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