The Impact of COVID-19 on Transfer

Blog Post
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Feb. 10, 2021

This blog is part of a series about student transfer in higher education and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on transfer students. You can read more here, here, and here.

Higher education experienced unprecedented disruption last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Physical campuses closed in the spring, pivoting almost all of their teaching, learning, and operations online. As the pandemic has raged uncontrolled across the nation, colleges chose a variety of different modalities for instruction for the academic year with many choosing to be fully online, others choosing a mix of in-person and online learning, and some sticking with fully in-person learning.

These choices—along with the pandemic itself—influenced the enrollment decisions of every student in higher education. Some students maintained enrollment at the same college or university they were at before the pandemic hit, while others reevaluated their options. With the vast majority of schools operating online, and with the pandemic complicating most people’s lives, some students chose to transfer to other institutions. According to a nationally-representative survey of undergraduates conducted by New America and Third Way, approximately 9 percent of students decided to transfer schools for the academic year 2020-2021. One in four of those students did so to be closer to home. Nearly 18 percent said they were unlikely to re-enroll in their current institution in the fall 2021--with nearly a third of those students saying they’d transfer. While a lot is up in the air in understanding what a return to campus will look like this fall, there might be higher than normal swirl among students as they choose to attend other institutions.

Transfer, already fairly common with approximately 1.4 million students transferring colleges since 2015, may become more common due to the pandemic, at least temporarily. This is why New America is releasing a blog series taking on some of the most challenging parts of the transfer experience. Overall enrollment in higher education fell 4 percent last fall. Community colleges were hit the hardest with a 9.4 percent decline. With that and the uncertainty for the coming years, some institutions will likely use transfer as a strategy to offset those enrollment declines and maintain or increase tuition revenue. Added budget strains might be felt at a number of colleges and universities from decreased auxiliary revenue, increased costs from testing and sanitization supplies, and state budget cuts, all will add to the need for new revenue. Worse, the havoc on schools’ budgets could even force some to close their doors for good, leaving students looking for a new college or university to call home. And while it’s unclear what decisions students made for this year, there might be increased churn in the coming semesters for those who changed their mind.

The full impact of the pandemic on students’ decision-making around transferring has yet to be realized. But what we do know is that transferring in higher education was hard, even before COVID-19. On top of applying to schools and considering financial aid packages, transfer students might be physically moving, looking for new work options, and more. One of the more stressful things they often have to worry about is ensuring they get credit for the work they’ve already completed in higher education in order to stay on track to complete their education, and do so on time. Transfer students have to navigate the credit evaluation process where schools determine which courses will transfer, and whether they will count towards their degree process.

The COVID-19 crisis has been devastating in so many ways. Colleges and universities have been forced to toss the old playbook aside in many ways. While we all hope to return to that playbook and enjoy many of our pre-pandemic traditions, there are some things that should change going forward. This is an opportunity to take a look in the mirror and make sure that higher education is doing its best to serve students. And few areas in higher education are in need of attention as much as transfer. Institutions and policymakers alike should use this as a chance to revamp a process that often wastes time and money for students, and create one that is efficient and student-centered.

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