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College Students Increasingly Transfer Across State Lines, Study Finds

New research out this week should provide some relief to high school seniors agonizing over college decisions: You can always transfer. 

Students are increasingly transferring not only from one school to another but also across state lines to attend different institutions, according to a new signature report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in Herndon, Va. released Thursday.

Researchers discovered that about 13 percent of students who started at four-year public institutions completed at an institution other than where they first enrolled. This is up slightly from 12 percent in a similar report by the clearinghouse in late 2012.

Overall, 6 percent of students who started at a four-year public institution and received a degree ended up graduating in a different state. There were 12 states where more than 10 percent of students who began at a four-year public institution ended up receiving a degree in a different state, up from nine states in the previous year's report.

This new report provides state-level data not previously available, as completion rates have traditionally been based only on graduation from where the student started. Researchers note that nearly one in four students who completed a degree did so at an institution other than the one where they first enrolled. In 18 states, students who enrolled at four-year public colleges had a higher completion rate elsewhere, with students in Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska experiencing the largest increases.

The center examined first-time, degree-seeking students who enrolled in the fall of 2007 at one of 3,500 participating colleges and universities and tracked their paths through 2013.

The study also found completion rates in most states are higher for women than men, and are higher for traditional-age students as compared with those who delay starting college (ages 21-24).

As students become more mobile and choose diverse pathways to a degree, Doug Shapiro, the executive research director at the center said there needs to be new ways to measure institutional value and success outside of completion rates.

The clearinghouse plans on releasing this report annually to enable comparisons over time.

Another new study, published March 19 in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, focused on transfer trends at community colleges. It finds that students who start at community colleges and transfer to a four-year institution have bachelor-degree completion rates similar to students who begin at four-year colleges.

However, students could be even more successful if it weren't for losing credits in the move. The researchers found restrictive credit transfer policies (rather than lack of academic preparation, an emphasis on vocational training, or insufficient financial aid) were the reason for the slight gap in B.A. completion between otherwise similar undergraduates from community colleges versus their four-year counterparts. If colleges dropped restrictive credit transfer policies, bachelor-degree attainment would increase from 46 to 54 percent for transfer students, according to the study, co-authored by Paul Attewell and David Monaghan, both of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The study notes that just 58 percent of transfers are able to bring all or almost all (90 percent or more) of their credits with them and 14 percent lose more than 90 percent of their credits.

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