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Transfer, Mobility, Progress, and Higher Ed Enrollment

Transfer, Mobility, Progress, and Higher Ed Enrollment


The National Student Clearinghouse issued its final Fall 2020 enrollment report for higher education institutions this week. Appropriately, the report’s title had “COVID-19” in a smaller font above it. Clearly, COVID-19 influenced higher education enrollment this year, but the question remains as to whether COVID-19 simply accelerated a trend that was already in the works.

The report begins by providing background information on the transfer pathways available to college students and states that those pathways were complicated prior to the pandemic, particularly for underrepresented student groups. Disruptions in institutional reopening plans due to COVID-19 made transfer pathways even more difficult, particularly since the economic and health impacts of different populations was not the same.

Transfer enrollment declined 8.1 percent this fall, compared to the fall of 2019. This decline was much higher than the decline of 2.4 percent among non-transfer students. Reverse transfers (four-year students transferring to two-year colleges) declined by 19.4 percent, followed by lateral transfers (-12.6 percent) and upward transfers (-0.7 percent).

Students who stopped out before the COVID-19 outbreak were less likely to return this fall. This group declined 16.7 percent. Last year (Fall 2019), this group grew by 7.9 percent.

Those students who stopped out prior to the outbreak and returned this fall were more likely to have returned to a different institution, and an increasing number of them chose a primarily online institution. Only primarily online institutions showed an increase in returning transfer students for the fall of 2020.

The Clearinghouse’s final report indicates that overall undergraduate enrollment declined 4.9 percent due to drops in two groups of students – students returning after a stop-out (-16.7 percent) and freshmen enrollment (-12.4 percent). Freshmen enrollment was impacted the most as their share of overall enrollment declined from 18.0 percent in Fall 2019 to 16.6 percent in Fall 2020.

First-time enrollment declined in all four sectors with public two-year institutions experiencing the greatest decline (-18.5 percent) and private for-profit institutions experiencing the lowest decline (-4.5 percent). Continuing students declined only marginally (-1.5 percent) from last year, which was the same as the pre-pandemic rate of decline. If the community college sector is not included (-7.2 percent), continuing student enrollment increased slightly in all of the four-year sectors.

Figure 2 of the report — Fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment by sector and by category as a percent of overall enrollment — was interesting on a number of fronts. Most interesting to me was the comparison of the four-year institution enrollments by sector. The largest category of students as a percent of total enrollment was “Continuing, Non-transfers.” The percentage was relatively consistent across all four-year sectors with public at 70.3 percent, private non-profit at 71.0 percent, and private for-profit at 71.4 percent. Public two-year was at 61.7 percent.

The other four categories varied widely among sectors. First-time students were 15.4 percent of public four-year, 17.4 percent of private four-year, 7.4 percent of for-profit four-year, and 19.0 percent of public two-year. Clearly, recruiting first-time students is not the focus of for-profit institutions.

On the other hand, “Returning, Transfers” were 2.4 percent of public four-year, 3.5 percent of private non-profit four-year, 12.6 percent of private for-profit four-year, and 4.1 percent of public two-year students. Returning students are students who had a stop-out without undergraduate completion and re-enrolled in the current term. They account for the vast majority (75.4 percent) of transfers-in to the four-year, for-profit sector.

From a mobility perspective, the pathways for transfer declined in all categories, with reverse transfers from four-year to two-year experiencing the greatest decline year-over-year at -19.4 percent. Lateral transfers from a four-year to a four-year or a two-year to a two-year decreased year-over-year at -12.6 percent.

Upward transfers experienced a slight decline at -0.7 percent. Because their pathway declined the least, upward transfers grew as a percentage of all transfer-in pathways to 49.5 percent nationally. For continuing students (students who continued enrollment from the preceding term), upward transfer comprises 58.6 percent of transfer enrollment, an increase of 4.1 percent from 2019.

The Fall 2020 student enrollment report includes data from 92 percent of the Clearinghouse reporting institutions as of November 19, 2020. In addition to declines in transfer student enrollments, there is evidence that the pandemic has impacted the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students more than the other races.

The two-year sector has experienced the greatest decline in enrollments this year: an 18.5 percent decline in freshmen, a 19.6 percent decline in reverse transfers, an 18.7 percent drop in returning students, and a decline of 7.2 percent in continuing students.

There are two possible explanations for the two-year sector decline that did not surface in the Clearinghouse report. Some of the largest enrollments in the two-year sector include programs that require practicums or clinicals. It is possible that some of these programs were downsized or suspended because of an inability to conduct the practicums or clinicals online.

I thought that another explanation for the Fall 2020 two-year sector enrollment decline might be that public two-year institutions had less experience with online classes than public four-year institutions. Accessing the National Center for Education Statistics reports from Fall 2018, I looked at the percentage of public two-year students with no distance education classes (65.3 percent) versus the percentage of public four-year students with no distance education classes (66.1 percent). With less than 1 percent difference, I ruled out the availability of distance education courses as an explanation for the sector’s decline in enrollment.

The authors of the Clearinghouse report write that the general dampening of student mobility identified in this report could have a lasting effect on postsecondary success and attainment, particularly for affordable access to bachelor’s degrees for community college students as well as for students whose education goals have changed or who seek a stronger institutional fit. The longer the pandemic continues to constrain avenues of choice, the Clearinghouse researchers believe that students will face even larger barriers toward degree completion, promising careers, and socioeconomic mobility.

Times are tough, particularly for the lower socioeconomic classes. I believe they disproportionately account for the largest percentage of community college enrollment losses in Fall 2020. With President-elect Biden supporting free community college, it will be interesting to see if the combination of rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine as well as proposed changes to financial aid alters the enrollment declines experienced this fall.

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 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 was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair 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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