Transfer Admissions & Advising Committee

Bridging the knowledge gap between two and four year schools

Student Swirls

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The ideal image that comes to mind when you envision a traditional high school age senior student going to college is simplistic: the student enters a four-year college right after high school and stays there until a bachelor’s degree or higher is earned. However, the reality of that is much less straightforward and can include many paths—including some that crisscross, go backwards, or stop all together before the finish line. In a report released in 2012 by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, one-third of all college students transfer schools before earning a degree. This has been a largely increasing trend, and is now referred to as Student Swirl.

There are many factors that can affect this. It could be cost, lack of major, sports, unhappiness, or location. Most recently, online education has become a huge factor. Students see this as a simple option and think that it will be easier and more flexible to do college online rather than in person. Once the realization of the extent of work needed, and they speak with friends enjoying going to campus, the student changes their mind. With more and more online institutions becoming available, plus the availability of taking courses online at the well-known campus institutions as well, students see this as a viable option right off the bat. Not to mention the change in generations as the “instant gratification and simplistic way of thinking” age starts attending college. This has added to the number of transfer students in the past 5 years. Another huge factor is tuition. Every year, most colleges and universities increase their tuition by a certain percentage. So slowly, $30,000 schools become $40,000 schools, and even quicker, they become $50,000 schools. After the economic downfall in 2008, students were educated more on the vast amount of debt this can add up to.

But aside from all those, the most logical and common transfer trend is students transferring from a two-year school with an associate’s to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degree. This helps bring down the cost of college immensely. While this may not happen as picture perfectly as we hope, even student who attend for a year or eighteen months tend to save money in the long run.

Student swirl becomes an issue of concern because it affects two sides of the coin. On one side, schools have to make incoming transfer students feel welcome. I have touched about this in previous posts, and schools are starting to work to make their orientations and transfer populations feel more involved on campus. On the other side, the schools have to work on their retention side to make sure students don’t transfer out. Understanding the student is the most important aspect of trying to curb transferring out.

Another Clearinghouse report shows that of the one-third of students who transfer, 60% go on to complete their bachelor’s degree, while 8% (6 years after the transfer) are still working towards their degree.  The rest drop out or transfer again.

While this is an inevitable phenomenon, it is something that schools are becoming better prepared for. Schools are working closer with two-year schools and high school guidance counselors to help bridge the knowledge gap. High school guidance counselors can help the high school students make more informed decisions about the need to go to community college, whether to help save money or to bring up grades.

It is becoming more and more important for transfer professionals to speak openly and frequently with both two-year counselors and high school counselors to help alleviate some of the stresses that can come with transfer students. So while the term student swirl is new to me, it is definitely here to stay. It is just a matter of adjustment on all ends.


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