Report: 'Reverse transfer' students rarely return to original institution, complete degrees

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A new report examining “reverse transfer” students—those who begin at a four-year institution but transfer to a two-year institution—found that just 1 in 6 returned to the original four-year institution, and just 1 in 10 were either still enrolled there or had completed a degree there after six years. The study, “Reverse Transfer: A National View of Student Mobility From Four-Year to Two-Year Institutions,” was issued by Indiana University’s Project on Academic Success and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The report examined six years of data drawn from more than 1.2 million students who began at four-year institutions in 2005. The study found that in that period, 14.4 percent enrolled in a two-year institution outside summer months. While more than 80 percent of students who took courses during the summer returned to their original four-year institution, less than 17 percent of the students who enrolled in a two-year institution outside summer months returned to their original four-year institution.

“In most states, policy-makers are increasingly encouraging students to start at two-year colleges and then transfer,” said Don Hossler, former executive director of research at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and lead author of this study. Hossler is also professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IU School of Education, and a published expert in student achievement and college choice and enrollment. “As a result, there is also growing interest in reverse transfers, but we have known relatively little about what happens to reverse transfer students. Do they eventually transfer back to a four-year institution; are they more or less likely to graduate from a two- or four-year institution?”

Hossler said the study will help fill a knowledge gap about today's higher education students. “This provides the most comprehensive look at reverse transfers that has ever been undertaken,” he said. “It will help state policy-makers better understand the impact of their policy decisions and give postsecondary institutions a clearer sense of how they can best serve this growing population of students.”

“This report highlights the importance of community colleges in the higher education landscape,” said Vasti Torres, director of both the Project on Academic Success and the Center for Postsecondary Research and also professor of educational leadership and policy studies. “In addition, the report highlights the complexity involved in the transfer process.”

A majority of the students over the six years did not return to their institution of origin. A higher proportion of reverse transfer students who began at a public four-year institution returned to the institution of origin (18.2 percent) than those initially enrolled at private nonprofit (11.4 percent) or private for-profit institutions (11.9 percent). The highest proportion returning to a four-year college or university other than the institution of origin was among those who started at a private nonprofit four-year institution (35.9 percent), followed by those who started at public four-year institutions (26.1 percent) or started at private for-profit four-year institutions (18.1 percent). Among the students never returning to a four-year institution of any type, the proportion was highest among those who began at a private for-profit four-year institution (69.9 percent), closely followed by those who started at publics (55.6 percent) or private nonprofits (52.7 percent).

The study found that more than 71 percent of reverse transfer students stayed at a two-year institution for more than one term. The longer the students stayed at a two-year institution, the lower the rate of return to the original four-year institution. While completion rates were high among students who took only summer courses at two-year institutions and returned to their original four-year institution (77.5 percent), just 40.1 percent of students enrolling in two-year institutions for just one term outside summer months and returning to their original four-year institutions completed degrees. For non-summer reverse transfer students staying more than one term at the two-year institution, the completion rate was just 33 percent. 

The report offers several recommendations for institutional and public policymakers:

  • Four-year institutions may want to better track reverse transfer students and invest in ways to ease re-enrollment.
  • Four-year institutions should become more familiar with students' complex pathways to their campus to better understand needs and determine the best ways to assist them.
  • Community colleges and other two-year institutions must invest resources in mediating the effects on students of leaving a four-year institution without earning a credential.
  • More analysis of the data may reveal more about the reasons for reverse transfer, such as the higher proportion of transfers during students’ second year.
  • Students should be better informed about the relation of transfers to completing a four-year degree.
  • States should provide more policy support for degree completion for reverse transfer students, similar to that encouraging the movement from two-year to four-year institutions.
  • States should provide support to institutions for assisting reverse transfer students in college completion.

Other co-authors on the report are Doug Shapiro, executive research director, and Afet Dundar, associate director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The other Project on Academic Success co-authors are Jin Chen, research associate; Desiree Zerquera, visiting assistant director for research; and Mary Ziskin, senior associate director.

This report is the third in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Signature Report series. The Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the exchange and understanding of student enrollment, degree and certificate records on behalf of its more than 3,300 participating higher education institutions. The Signature Reports focus on important issues related to students' college access and progress nationwide.

The Project on Academic Success is part of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, and conducts practice- and policy-oriented research on opportunity and equity in postsecondary education and the multiple pathways of 21st-century students toward postsecondary academic success. The Project on Academic Success research team brings a diversity of specialties including student financial aid policy, college choice, enrollment management, and racial and gender equity. The Project on Academic Success has published numerous reports in the past regarding student persistence trends, the effects of debt on student success outcomes and institutional practices enhancing student academic success.