Transfer Student Survey of Colleges Shows a Need for More Progress

The editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, Doug Lederman, published an article Monday morning about the pathways of transfer for students from two-year to four-year colleges. Acknowledging that student transfers have been historically harder than they should be, Mr. Lederman states that the incentives for institutions to smooth out the process are now greater than they have ever been before.

Inside Higher Ed teamed up with Hanover Research to survey higher ed administrators who are involved with transfer policies or practices at two- and four-year colleges. The analysis included responses from 143 administrators, 16 percent (23) of whom represented two-year public institutions.

Among the key findings was a disparity between the assessments from four-year administrators as to how effective their institutions were in supporting students seeking to transfer than the assessments from two-year institution administrators as to how effective four-year institutions were. Only 13 percent of administrators from two-year colleges rated four-year colleges and universities as either extremely or very effective when working with transfer students to approve academic credits.

At the same time, 61 percent of administrators from four-year private colleges and universities rated their institutions as effective in this area. That rating was only slightly higher than the 51 percent accorded by administrators from four-year public colleges and universities.

The respondents agreed that having a more centralized approach to credit evaluation works better for transfer student enrollment. In fact, 92 percent of the respondents believe the centralized approach is better for deciding which transfer credits to recognize.

COVID-19 appears to have changed the minds of some four-year institution administrators regarding transfer agreements with two-year institutions. Nearly 75 percent of four-year institutions report already having partnerships with two-year colleges. Of the 25 percent that do not have agreements, nearly half of them (47 percent) report that they are extremely or very likely to partner with two-year institutions in the future.

Not surprisingly, administrators from public four-year institutions report a higher percentage of transfer students with more than 30 semester hours from other institutions (17 percent) than administrators from private four-year institutions (9 percent). Looking forward, the survey asked administrators what percentage of their undergraduate students in 2025 would accumulate more than 30 semester hours at another institution.

Approximately 32 percent of public four-year administrators responded that 50 percent or more of their students will have earned more than 30 semester hours at another institution, while only 16 percent of private four-year administrators believe that 50 percent or more of their students will do the same.

The survey posed a series of questions to the administrators asking them to rate the effectiveness of four-year institutions in managing the transfer student process. Notably, the first three categories surfaced a statistically significant difference between the responses of the four-year administrators and the two-year administrators.

When the survey asked respondents to “rate the degree to which [your institution is/four-year institutions are] effective at managing the following aspects of the student transfer process,” working with transfer students to approve academic credits that apply to a major (61 percent/51 percent – 13 percent), providing sufficient academic support to transfer students who enroll (55 percent/45 percent – 4 percent), and advising prospective transfer students on their academic options (51 percent/38 percent – 9 percent) were the responses that varied the most between private/public four-year administrators and two-year administrators.

There was alignment in the ratings for the categories of: recruiting potential transfer students to apply (24 percent/38 percent – 39 percent), convincing transfer students admitted to a four-year institution to actually enroll (31 percent/28 percent – 26 percent), and providing sufficient social integration services for transfer students who enroll (19 percent/15 percent – 0 percent). None of the responses to the last three categories are enthusiastic endorsements of the abilities of four-year institutions to effectively manage the student transfer process.

Despite the low transfer rates, approximately 75 percent of the administrators responding agreed that students who transfer from one institution to another perform as well as or better at the receiving institution than do students who began at that institution.

Given the response to the survey question above, it’s a bit surprising that there continue to be so many barriers to transfer from one college to another. Some states have mandated that their public two-year and four-year institutions align their curriculums in order to facilitate the recognition of 60 credit hours for a graduate of a two-year college transferring to a four-year college.

Despite these partnerships, Lederman reports that more than 40 percent of students who seek to transfer credits from one college to another lose a meaningful proportion of those credits, and 15 percent are unable to transfer any credits at all. Given some of the other responses, it’s clear that there is more work to be completed on the policy, process, and communications related to transfer credit.

The researchers must have anticipated results showing a disparity in the responses between the two-year administrators and the four-year administrators, because they closed the survey with a set of questions about the administrators’ concerns about transfer students and the policies and practices institutions have in place, or don’t have in place, to improve the transfer process.

Nearly 75 percent of two-year administrators responded that they are concerned about transfer students’ inability to afford tuition, which is also the top concern expressed by the private four-year administrators (56 percent). More than two-thirds of respondents from four-year institutions said that their institutions had initiatives to increase recruitment of transfer students, while less than half said they had expanded faculty advising or social integration programs for transfer students. Less than 20 percent of the four-year administrators said that they had eased restrictions on credit transfer policies toward major requirements.

I’ve observed the tenuous relationship between two-year and four-year institutions for years. Community colleges enrolled 35 percent (5.7 million) of all undergraduate students in the fall of 2018.

At the same time, only one in six (16.7 percent) of the 80 percent of community college students who state that they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree do so in six years. That’s too large of a population to ignore, particularly now during an overall decline in enrollment.

The processes and policies are not rocket science; they’ve been around for years. Hopefully, four-year administrators will take notice of these survey disparities and find ways to improve the policies, processes, and communities, so that more of our community college students can graduate on time with a four-year degree without losing credits for work already completed.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence