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Executive Summary
The Importance of 2/4 Transfer
The Different Dimensions of Transfer
The Accountability Problem and Transfer “Rates”
Research on State Policy and Transfer
Six-State Focus
    New Mexico
    New York
    North Carolina
Lessons Learned about State Transfer Policy
Conclusions and Recommendations
State Resources
About the Author
The Institute for Higher Education Policy
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

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Because transfer students attend at least two institutions, the performance and accountability data from individual institutions give an incomplete picture of transfer patterns. Improvements in collecting longitudinal student data at both the national and state levels have allowed researchers to document the types of students and institutions (or programs) associated with different transfer patterns. While the focus of this paper is 2/4 transfer, a quick review of the research provides insights into the larger dimension of student mobility in higher education.

NCES Transfer Behavior Report

Alex McCormick’s research for the National Center for Educational Statistics provides a good snapshot of transfer dynamics (McCormick and Carroll, 1997). McCormick examined attendance patterns through the 1993–94 academic year for a national sample of students who began their postsecondary education in 1989–90. Roughly a third of these students had transferred at least once within four years; transfers were made by about one in four of all students who began at a four-year institution, and by 43% of students who began at a two-year institution (these figures include transfers to out-of- state and private institutions). Among students who began at a two-year institution, about half had transferred to a four-year institution. Only about a third of these 2/4 transfer students earned the associate degree prior to transfer; the rest transferred without earning a degree or credential. The bachelor’s degree attainment rate was higher for those who had obtained an associate degree prior to transfer: 43% within five years, compared with 17% for those who transferred without the credential.

Of students who transferred from four-year institutions, just over half transferred to another four-year institution; the rest transferred to two-year institutions. Students who transferred from four-year institutions were less likely to have time gaps in their college education than two-year transfers, usually re-enrolling within six months after leaving the first institution. In contrast, nearly a quarter of two-year college students were out of school for more than three years during the course of their education. On average, 2/4 transfer students spent about 20 months at the first institution. They often took a considerable amount of time off between institutions—an average of 21 months. Half of the two-year students who enrolled full-time during their first year in college subsequently transferred to a four-year institution, but only a fourth of students who enrolled part-time did so. Five years after starting college, a fourth of community college transfer students had received a bachelor’s degree and another 44% were still enrolled at a four-year institution. The overall persistence rate for community college transfer students was about the same as that for students who began in a four-year institution.

Answers in the Toolbox

Answers in the Toolbox, Clifford Adelman’s report for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education, combined longitudinal student enrollment and degree data with transcript analysis, and correlated characteristics of individual students and academic programs with student flow patterns (Adelman, 1999). Adelman found that the single most important predictor of future baccalaureate attainment for all students—four-year as well as two-year—is the academic intensity and quality of their high school curriculum. Adelman confirmed McCormick’s findings about student enrollment patterns, reporting that over 60% of undergraduates attend more than one institution, and 40% transfer across state lines. Because so many students attend more than one institution and take time off, Adelman reasoned that graduation or transfer rates for individual institutions are less meaningful than regional and national aggregations that capture the flow of students across institutions. He also stressed the importance of credit-based measures of retention and degree attainment rather than time- based measures, because the majority of students attend part-time and have gaps in their attendance even when they persist to the degree.

Adelman found that 63% of students who attend a four-year college attain a bachelor’s degree by age 30; for those who start at highly selective colleges, the rate exceeds 90%. Of students who begin at a community college, 26% formally transfer to a four-year institution. The graduation rate for these 2/4 transfer students is 70%, which indicates that the classic vertical transfer—in which a student earns at least a semester’s worth of credits before moving to a four-year college—produces a high likelihood of bachelor’s degree completion. Of all students who enroll in a community college and complete at least 10 credits, one in five eventually earns a bachelor’s degree.

SUNY Transfer Study

Ronald Ehrenberg and Christopher Smith (2002) studied 2/4 transfer performance within the SUNY system and showed how data on transfer performance can be used to develop models that will predict transfer performance. Noting the considerable disparities among the SUNY campuses in their transfer and graduation performance, Ehrenberg and Smith evaluated data for full-time students who had transferred within SUNY from a two-year to a four-year institution at the start of the 1995 and 1996 fall semesters. They also examined these students’ persistence to the baccalaureate degree within three years of transfer, and they developed a statistical model to predict transfer performance by campus and for degree and nondegree two-year transfer students. This model can be used to rank colleges’ transfer effectiveness, and it could also be extended to study statewide performance in both private as well as public institutions. In addition to being a tool for ranking campuses, the methodology could serve as the basis for performance and incentive funding, and also as the point of departure for an analysis of best practices to help underperforming institutions improve their transfer performance.


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© 2002 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
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