The measure wasn’t only a way to give a boost to students churning through a global health emergency. It was also meant to help the college meet its enrollment targets for this turbulent fall and improve its diversity in a year of renewed emphasis on racial equity.
Lebanon Valley, which has about 1,700 undergraduates, attracted 42 transfer students, up 13 percent from last year, said Susan Tammaro, associate provost.
“I’d like to see it as a win-win,” Tammaro said.
Now the college hopes to make the temporary transfer policy permanent, just as many other institutions and policy organizations are also seizing this moment to finally fix one of the biggest, costliest and most time-consuming logjams in higher education.
Among other changes, institutions are accepting more of the academic credits students earned elsewhere, something many have previously been resistant to doing.
“It’s sad that it didn’t happen before, but it’s good that it’s happening now,” said Troy Holaday, president of CollegeSource, a platform through which colleges review transfer credit.
Much of the attention suddenly being paid to transfer students is in institutions’ self-interest — most notably their need to fill seats. Some colleges are also positioning themselves to scoop up students from institutions that have already, or are likely to, shut down or merge.
The pandemic is already believed to have prompted more students than usual to move from one university or college to another and — like a giant game of musical chairs — portends a flurry of additional transfers when it ends.
“If ever there were a time to simplify how students transfer between colleges, this is it,” a dozen higher education leaders said in a call to action to their colleagues to “eliminate college transfer barriers now.”
The social justice movement plays a role, too, because the transfer barrier disproportionately thwarts Black and Hispanic students. Colleges and universities with low numbers of such students, including highly selective institutions, are recruiting transfer students from community colleges as a strategy to raise those numbers.
Whatever the motivations, advocates are cautiously optimistic that long-promised fixes to the enduring problem of transfer obstacles might finally be gaining ground.
“All of these things are coming together to maybe positively impact transfer,” said William Crowe, interim director for higher education strategy, policy and services at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin and head of the Texas Transfer Alliance, which is trying to smooth the process in that state.
If it sounds as if Crowe is hedging his bets, that’s because there have been promises before to streamline transfer, but lost college credits continue to derail hundreds of thousands — especially the disproportionately low-income, first-generation, and racial and ethnic minority students who begin their educations at community colleges.
Eight out of 10 of the more than 1 million students who start community colleges each year say they plan to transfer and eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 13 percent actually manage to achieve that within six years, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)
The numbers are even worse for lower-income, Black and Hispanic community college students, who make it to that finish line at half the rate of higher-income White students.
One of the causes of this is that students who transfer lose 43 percent of the credits they’ve earned, the U.S. Government Accountability Office says in the most recent analysis of this problem. Even when the credits are accepted, they often don’t count toward a major.
The scale of this is far bigger than is widely understood. More than a third of students transfer at least once in their college careers, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports; of those, nearly half change schools more than once.
These proportions are expected to rise as a result of the turmoil caused by the novel coronavirus. CollegeSource says its portal for students to check whether their credits will transfer has seen a 15 percent increase in searches. Other services through which students send their transcripts from one institution to another also report that traffic is up.
Colleges and universities will continue to need transfer students even after the pandemic ends. The number of students finishing high school is projected to remain flat through the 2020s, federal data shows — a consequence of a decline in the birthrate that began during the last recession in 2008.
“If you don’t have a reliable flow of students coming from somewhere other than high schools, you’re going to be in trouble,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute.
Like Lebanon Valley, many private four-year colleges — historically the stingiest with transfer students — are opening their doors a little wider to them.
In a push by the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), eight private colleges and universities in Connecticut this fall have agreed to provide a “transfer pathway” for community college graduates. The board is advocating the same thing in Massachusetts and Rhode Island; at least two Massachusetts institutions already accept all or most general education credits from community college students there.
For the past 10 years, “the drumbeat has been, ‘We need to fix this, we need to fix it,’ ” said Emily Decatur, associate director for NEBHE’s regional student program and transfer initiatives. “The enrollment crisis we’re facing right now, of course that’s a factor. If that’s what it takes to fix it, that’s great.”
The transfer route can also bolster the diversity of private institutions. Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., began a partnership with community colleges in 2009, admitting 58 transfer students from area community colleges since then as juniors; of those, 17 were of non-White, the college says.
But what institutions are looking for most are paying customers.
“I hate to objectify transfer students, but they are great backfill for losses if [other] students stop out,” said Holaday, of CollegeSource.
More than two-thirds of admissions officers at four-year universities and colleges say transfer students have become “considerably important” in meeting enrollment goals, a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found.
In some states, schools are expecting unusually high numbers of transfer students for altogether different reasons.
In California, for example, measures that help community college students avoid momentum-killing remedial courses mean that the number qualified to transfer to four-year universities may soon increase by as much as 50 percent, the Public Policy Institute of California calculates.
California’s community college system has a goal of increasing the number of transfer students to California State and University of California campuses by 35 percent by 2022. And the state has leveraged its Cal Grants financial aid program to pressure private colleges to take community college credits in the same way public institutions do.
An initiative among Western states is trying a different approach. Called the Interstate Passport, it helps students transfer among the 59 participating institutions in 17 states once they’ve met agreed-upon “learning outcomes,” rather than relying on credits.
“As unfortunate as the circumstances are that we’re dealing with,” said Anna Galas, who coordinates the program, “it’s allowed these institutions to address these long-standing challenges they’ve had, including transfer.”