Home Online Education Exploring Institution-to-Institution Student Swirling Patterns
Exploring Institution-to-Institution Student Swirling Patterns

Exploring Institution-to-Institution Student Swirling Patterns


104307718On October 30, my colleagues Dr. Phil Ice, vice president of research and development, Dr. Melissa Layne, director of research methodology, and I presented a research paper at the Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan Consortium) annual conference in Orlando, FL. The research was conducted utilizing data submitted to the National Student Clearinghouse as well as the outcomes and analysis of the Clearinghouse data as compared to our data. The purpose of the study was to see, first, if there were any particular student demographic data that might be significant predictors regarding a student’s likelihood to transfer (swirl) from one institution to another and, second, what relative percentage of students who attended American Public University System’s two schools, American Military University and American Public University, transferred to another institution utilizing the Clearinghouse.

The Clearinghouse is a non-profit founded in 1993. It contains data representing approximately 90 percent of the four-year degrees granted in the United States. Until a year or two ago, institutions could not submit their student enrollment data if they offered more than three or four semesters in an academic year. That would rule out many of the students attending online universities or universities with large online student populations. Fortunately, the Clearinghouse modified its database in order to allow for many more starts in an institution’s academic year. That change allowed APUS to submit data.

We submitted enrollment data for 183,000 unique students attending APUS from 2011 through 2013. From that data, 49,000 students were a match to data in the Clearinghouse dataset, meaning that they earned academic credit during this time period from another college or university submitting data to the Clearinghouse. Of those students, 32,000 returned to APUS as students and 17,000 were permanent transfer students (9.2 percent of 183,000). Of the students leaving APUS, 42 percent were business majors and 31 percent were general studies students. Both of these numbers are relatively high compared to the percentage of bachelor’s students attending APUS that major in those degrees so further research, most likely qualitative in nature, needs to be conducted to find out why so many of the transfer students are concentrated in those two degrees. The average student transferring completed 5.6 courses over seven months at APUS and transferred to a state school. Another research question to pursue will be ranking the schools transferred to in terms of the number of APUS students attending that institution.

The 32,000 students who returned to APUS after earning credits elsewhere were approximately five years older than the students who transferred. There were no significant programs that these students represented and whether or not the student originally transferred credit into APUS was not a significant influencer statistically. These students had taken nine courses on average with APUS before attending another institution and 14 months elapsed between the last class at APUS and the first class taken after their return. Approximately 21% of the returning students transferred an average of seven credit hours to APUS.   Transfer credit received was not a statistically significant predictor of whether or not students in the Clearinghouse data would return to APUS.

One of our conclusions is that we have much to learn from utilizing the Clearinghouse database. Another is that the students who dropped out of APUS (never returned) have a different profile (fewer courses completed and shorter length of time attending APUS) than the students who leave and return. Unfortunately, none of the student background characteristics captured by the Clearinghouse provided us with a predictor for whether or not a student was likely to attend multiple institutions. Over time, we hope that other institutions will utilize the Clearinghouse dataset to analyze student attendance patterns and that all of us will benefit through studies like this.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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