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One-Third of College Students Transfer Schools Before Graduation

High school students in knots about where to go to college can take solace in a new report that shows it's increasingly common to switch schools if they have a change of heart.

Just over 37 percent of college students transfer schools at least once within six years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released July 6. The Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit organization analyzed the pathways of 3.6 million first-time students who enrolled in any type of college beginning in 2008. The transfer rate counts students as transfers if they moved to a different institution before receiving a bachelor's degree within a period of six years.

When students switch, they are often going out of state. The report found that about 1 in 5 students who start at two-year public institutions and nearly 1 in 4 who enrolled first at four-year public institutions transferred across state lines.

About one-quarter of students who started at a community college transferred to a four-year school, but only 1 in 8 transferred after having earned an associate degree or certificate. A 2012 report from the center showed 1 in 5 students transferring from a two-year to four-year institutions were post-degree.

Researchers note that this trend may support the case for "reverse transfer initiatives" currently being pursued in many states that allow the transfer of student credits back to two-year institutions that may be able to award a degree. Among students transferring from a four-year college, community college was the top destination, according to the new data,  with 53.7 moving to a two-year community college.

One quarter of all student mobility from four-year institutions to community colleges consisted of "summer swirlers," who returned to their starting institution in the following fall term. Other research by the center has found this strategy can help boost completion rates at starting four-year institution.

The researchers note that the analysis shows the picture of postsecondary enrollment, transfer, persistence, and completion is complex and broader definitions of both student success and institutional effectiveness should be considered.

"The increased attention to student outcomes and degree attainment at the national and state levels are likely to lead to new accountability measures for postsecondary institutions that will need to go beyond the first-time, full-time cohorts that institutions are used to tracking," the report said. "Looking at the outcomes of all students—nontraditional students who enroll part-time or switch their enrollment status from full-time to part-time and vice versa as well as transfer-in and transfer-out students—will be beneficial for public policymaking and individual students."


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