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Chuck Carney
Director, Communications and Media Relations, IU School of Education

Last modified: Friday, March 9, 2012

Student transfers complicate college experience, according to report from IU, National Student Clearinghouse


March 9, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new report issued by Indiana University's Project on Academic Success and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center finds that a large portion of postsecondary students transfer institutions during their college studies. A third of all students, both full- and part-time, transferred at least once during the five-year period studied for the report, "Transfer and Mobility: A National View of Pre-Degree Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions."

The report's authors conclude that the experiences of college students who shift institutions are considerably more complex than institutions realize, possibly resulting in inadequate policies to ensure student success.

"Too many of our institutional and public policies are currently focused on the assumption that college students start and finish at a single institution," said Don Hossler, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IU School of Education, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and a published expert in student achievement and college choice and enrollment. "This is an especially important problem given the current emphasis, in most states, where students are being encouraged to start at a community college and then transfer."

It is the second in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's new Signature Report series, available at 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 progression nationwide. The next signature report, due later this year, will focus on college completion rates nationwide.

To get a more accurate picture of student mobility, the researchers examined enrollment data for nearly 2.8 million students between 2006 and 2011. To accurately capture movement, the data accounted for full- and part-time students, tracked each student from one institution to another, included students enrolled in two institutions simultaneously, and followed the students across state lines and all institution types.

"This report helps to reframe the conversation about student pathways," said Vasti Torres, director at the Project on Academic Success, a part of the Center for Postsecondary Research at IU, and also professor of educational leadership and policy studies. "It highlights the prevalence of transfers among institutions and will hopefully influence how the college completion should be seen."

The Project on Academic Success 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 and employment. Other Project on Academic Success co-authors are Mary Ziskin, senior associate director; Desiree Zerquera, visiting assistant director for research; and Jin Chen, research associate.

Among the key findings in the report:

  • About half of the students who transferred moved to two-year institutions.
  • The majority of transfers occurred in the students' second year (although the authors noted a surprising number transferred for the first time in the fourth and fifth years).
  • Transfer rates were similar for full- and part-time students.
  • More than a quarter of all transfers crossed state lines; the authors said that demonstrates the limitations of institution- and state-based enrollment reporting.

The report suggests that the focus on holding institutions solely accountable for a student's success may miss the mark. The authors conclude that focusing more on the student and viewing institutions as "stepping stones" on the pathway to a degree might allow for better approaches for encouraging student persistence.