Upward transfer system is failing black students – Report

A steep decline in the number of students taking advantage of upward transfers indicates that community colleges are no longer acting as an escalator that lifts the country’s poorest and (disproportionately) racialised students – a term used for groups that experience racial prejudice, in this case mostly for Black, Latinx, South Asian and Native American students – up to the level where they can walk through the doors of four-year baccalaureate level.

Upward transfers – from two-year community colleges to four-year colleges and universities – declined by almost 8% between fall 2021 and fall 2022, reports the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) in an update, Transfer and Progress Fall 2020 released on 9 March.

The report documents declines in the transfer rate among all demographic groups of students enrolled in community colleges, with the exception of 18-20-year-olds (11% of the nation’s 4.3 million community college students) whose transfer rate rebounded by 7.9%.

With the exception of this 7.9% increase, the NSCRC documented declines among all demographic groups of the 4.3 million students.

“Unlike the stabilisation we saw in the general enrolment numbers last month, the number of students who transferred in fall 2020 is continuing the downward slide it has been on since the pandemic began in 2020, and this is especially true for upward transfers,” said Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the NSCRC.

“This decline is being driven by more than just the smaller number of students in the transfer pool to begin with [caused by the drop of enrolment in community colleges during the pandemic]. The decline in transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions is steeper than the decline in how many students are enrolled in community colleges to begin with.”

Promise of upward mobility

John Fink, senior research associate and programme lead for the Community College Research Center Teachers College, Columbia University, said that even before the pandemic the transfer system was “really struggling and not delivering on its promise of upward mobility. You have lots of students entering the community colleges every year aspiring to transfer. Some surveys suggest that about 80% of community college students want to transfer to get a bachelor’s degree.

“But with the Clearinghouse data we’ve shown that only about a third of students ever transferred to the four-year colleges and at the end of a six-year period of time, fewer than one in five of these students complete a bachelor’s degree.

“This updated report shows that during the pandemic this got a lot worse for students and a lot worse for colleges, with declines in the number of transfer students transferring in and transferring out,” said Fink.

Two of the three main four-year sectors saw similar declines.

The upward transfer rate into the public four-year universities, such as the state university systems of Michigan and Texas, declined by 5.7% (11.3% since 2020). The transfer rate into the private non-profit institutions (eg, small liberal arts colleges like Smith College in Western Massachusetts and universities like University of Chicago) declined by 5.6% (-10% since 2020). By contrast, private-for-profit institutions saw an increase of 7.8% between 2021 and 2022, but still accepted 8.5% fewer transferees than they did in 2020.

While the transfer rates for every racial/ethnic group declined, the rate of decline was greater for racial and ethnic minorities. The decline of whites transferring into public four-year and private non-profit institutions was 7.3% and 7.6%, respectively. In 2022, the transfer rate of Latinx students to both public four-year and private non-profit colleges and universities dropped an average of 5.9%. Upward transfers by Asian students to public four-year and private non-profit institutions dropped by 11% and 16.2%, respectively. Nine % fewer blacks transferred to the public four-year universities while the decline in the rate of transfer to private four-year universities since 2020 was 7.4%.

NSCRC’s data allows for granular analysis. For example, the decline of almost 8% in total transfers is buoyed by a 4.8% increase in transfers for students returning to higher education after having taken what’s called a ‘Stop Out’ from college studies. Among continuing students, the decline is actually 12.4%. The decline is even higher, 13.4%, for colleges and universities in the ‘Highly Selective’ category – colleges and universities that require high school grades above B+ and SAT scores in the top 80th percentile. For institutions in the next category, ‘Very Competitive’, the decline in transfer students was 8.5%.

Student income levels

The Transfer and Progress Fall 2020 report includes an ‘Experimental Section’ that uses proxy measures (such as postal code) to estimate student income levels and student family income that allows NSCRC to disaggregate some transfer results by quintiles of student income, said Shapiro.

Forty-six percent of upward transfers to the ‘Highly Selective’ four-year colleges and universities are undertaken by students whose family income is in the top quintile. Only 7.4% and 4.7% of transfer students into the ‘Highly Selective’ category come from families in the two lowest quintiles, respectively. Even for schools in the ‘Competitive’ category, 50% of transferees come from the two highest quintiles while only about a quarter come from families with incomes in the two lowest quintiles.

After three years (2019, 2020 and 2021), during which the rate of upward transfers from rural community colleges declined by 2%, 4.8% and 7.7%, respectively, this trend reversed in 2022: the percentage of rural community college students upward transferring grew by 1.4%.

By contrast, the percent declines in transferees from suburban and urban community colleges increased greatly in 2022. Between 2019 and 2021, the percent of upward transfers from suburban community colleges declined by 3.3%, 2.6% and 5.8%. In 2022 the figure accelerated to -11%. Urban community colleges, the part of the sector with the highest enrolment, saw a decline of upward transfers of 8.8% in 2022 after declines of 5.1%, 3.3% and 0.7% in the previous three years.

“This suggests that the baccalaureate degree is beginning to appear increasingly out of reach for community college students, especially those who are enrolled in urban and suburban community colleges. The declines were steeper in those locations and in the community colleges that have primarily transfer-focused programmes for their students. So, this is very concerning,” said Shapiro.

Barriers to progress

Fink told University World News that the chart shows just how broken the community-college-to-four-year-degree-granting-institution escalator is.

Titled “Annual Snapshot of Transfer-Out Rates of Community College Beginning Cohorts”, it presents data from 2014 through 2021; each year is divided into First Year, Second Year and Third Year community college student years. Among first year students, both before and after the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, transfer rates were between 1.5% and 1.9%. The upward transfer rate for second year students (most community college programmes are two-year programmes) before the pandemic was 4.5%, dropping 1/10th of a percent in 2019 and rising to 6% in 2020. Between 2014 and 2019, the upward transfer rates for third year students were between 9.2% and 10.4%.

“Overall, you see relatively few students are transferring. Even if you look at the third year, only about 10% of students have transferred to a four-year college. The vast majority of students could transfer from their general associate’s degree or other transfer pathways. But they do not. So, there’s a pretty big disconnect between the number of students coming in and the number of students transferring and the pandemic made it even worse,” said Fink.

Pointing to the data about race, ethnicity and income in the report, Fink emphasised that the promise of the community college has not been realised because of a number of obstacles.

“We’ve created a system that has put a lot of barriers to progression to a bachelor’s degree in place. We know about what the barriers do. If you’re a student and your parents have gone to college or you have connections to people who know the ins and outs of this complicated system of transfer and how credits are going to apply to your bachelor’s degrees, you are going to know who to speak to. You have just the sort of cultural capital needed to navigate this complicated system,” said Fink.

“Community colleges enrol a large number of students who are underrepresented in terms of those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher in the US. So, this is why transfer is so important – to get a good job, where the pay is enough to sustain a family and, more importantly, a job you can grow and build throughout your career. Transfer is about broadening access to the bachelor’s degree and graduate degree for students of colour, for low-income students, for first generation students.

We have a transfer system that is not working well, generally, and especially not working well for underrepresented populations, students of colour and low-income students. That’s why it's so troubling.”