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Lebanon Valley College recruited transfer students this year by promising that their general education courses would count toward a degree — something that doesn’t usually happen. “You’re welcome here. And so are your transfer credits,” its recruiting materials say. Credit: Lebanon Valley College

When Covid-19 threw higher education into chaos, Lebanon Valley College quietly took a small step with big implications.

The private college near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, promised that the general education courses taken by any student transferring from another accredited institution would count toward a degree — something that doesn’t usually happen, and is among the reasons students who transfer lose many of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for.

 “You’re welcome here,” it told prospective transfer students in its recruiting materials. “And so are your transfer credits.”

The measure wasn’t only a way to give a boost to students churning through a global health emergency. It was also meant to help the college meet its enrollment targets for this turbulent fall and improve its diversity in a year of renewed emphasis on racial equity.

And it worked. Lebanon Valley, which has about 1,700 undergraduates, attracted 42 transfer students, up 13 percent from last year, said Susan Tammaro, associate provost.

“I’d like to see it as a win-win,” Tammaro said.

Now the college hopes to make the temporary transfer policy permanent, just as many other institutions and policy organizations are also seizing this moment to finally fix one of the biggest, costliest and most time-consuming logjams in higher education.

Among other changes, institutions are accepting more of the academic credits students earned elsewhere, something many have previously been resistant to doing.

Related: Why so few students transfer from community colleges to four-year universities

“It’s sad that it didn’t happen before, but it’s good that it’s happening now,” said Troy Holaday, former assistant director of academic systems at Ball State University and now president of CollegeSource, a platform through which colleges review transfer credit.

Much of the attention suddenly being paid to transfer students is in institutions’ self-interest — most notably their need to fill seats in the midst of the Covid-19 disruptions. Some colleges are also positioning themselves to scoop up refugees from institutions that have already, or are likely to, shut down or merge. At least 11 schools have announced just since March that they will close their doors, with hundreds more under financial stress.

“It’s sad that it didn’t happen before, but it’s good that it’s happening now.”

Troy Holaday, president, CollegeSource, on improving the transfer process

The pandemic is already believed to have prompted more students than usual to move from one university or college to another and — like a giant game of musical chairs — portends a flurry of additional transfers when it ends. There are early, concrete signs that this is happening. And policymakers speculate that there will continue to be a higher rate of transfers permanently, now that students have gotten experience with taking college credits from more than one place.

“If ever there were a time to simplify how students transfer between colleges, this is it,” a dozen higher education leaders said in a call to action to their colleagues to “eliminate college transfer barriers now.”

The social justice movement plays a role, too, since the transfer barrier disproportionately thwarts Black and Hispanic students. Colleges and universities with low numbers of such students, including highly selective institutions, are recruiting transfer students from community colleges as a strategy to raise those numbers.

Whatever the motivations, advocates are cautiously optimistic that long-promised fixes to the enduring problem of transfer obstacles might finally be gaining ground.

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A center at the University of Texas at Austin is coordinating a campaign to improve the transfer process in that state. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

“All of these things are coming together to maybe positively impact transfer,” said William Crowe, interim director for higher education strategy, policy and services at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin and head of the Texas Transfer Alliance, which is trying to smooth the process in that state.

If it sounds like he’s hedging his bets, that’s because there have been promises before to streamline transfer, but lost credits continue to derail hundreds of thousands — especially the disproportionately low-income, first-generation and racial and ethnic minority students who begin their educations at community colleges.

“These are the students who can least afford to lose ground, so it’s important that we be as generous as possible with their transfer credit,” Tammaro said.

Eight out of 10 of the more than a million students who start community colleges each year say they plan to transfer and eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 13 percent actually manage to achieve that within six years, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)

The numbers are even worse for lower-income, Black and Hispanic community college students, who make it to that finish line at half the rate of higher-income white students.

“All of these things are coming together to maybe positively impact transfer.”

William Crowe, interim director for higher education strategy, policy and services, Charles A. Dana Center, University of Texas at Austin

One of the causes of this is that students who transfer lose 43 percent of the credits they’ve already earned, the U.S. Government Accountability Office says in the most recent analysis of this problem.

Even when the credits are accepted, they often don’t count toward a major, meaning that transfer students often end up taking far more courses than are typically required for a bachelor’s degree. That’s a big reason why, by the time they receive their bachelor’s degrees, graduates in general will have taken and paid for an entire extra semester’s worth of credit, on average, prolonging their time in, and cost of, college. Many just drop out.

The scale of this is far bigger than is widely understood. Thirty-seven percent of students transfer at least once in their college careers, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports; of those, nearly half change schools more than once. At any given time, there are about 1.4 million students in college who have transferred, according to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the American Council on Education.

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These proportions are expected to rise as a result of the turmoil caused by the coronavirus. CollegeSource says its portal for students to check if their credits will transfer has seen a 15 percent increase in searches. Other services through which students send their transcripts from one institution to another also report rising traffic. And CollegeSource is steadily adding universities and colleges to its platform that allows them to more quickly assess transfer credit.

“Institutions are trying to get ready,” Crowe said. “They’re aware of this coming wave [of transfers] being even bigger than normal.”

“If you don’t have a reliable flow of students coming from somewhere other than high schools, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Josh Wyner, executive director, College Excellence Program, Aspen Institute

They also know they’ll continue to need transfer students even after the pandemic ends. That’s because the number of students finishing high school is projected to remain flat through the 2020s, federal data show — a consequence of a decline in the birthrate that began during the last recession in 2008. This gives colleges and universities another compelling motivation many haven’t had before to simplify the transfer process.

“They didn’t have to look at it as institutional survival, so transfer students were an afterthought,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. Now, he said, “if you don’t have a reliable flow of students coming from somewhere other than high schools, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Momentum to make transfer easier began before the Covid crisis. Lawmakers “were seeing all these students taking these hours, and that not only cost the students, it was also costing the states money for courses students took that didn’t transfer,” Crowe said.

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In Texas, for example — where students who transfer end up with nearly 23 excess credits, or more than a semester’s worth, costing taxpayers $57 million a year and students $58 million, according to the Greater Texas Foundation — the legislature last year ordered universities to clearly explain what courses students need to take for every major and annually disclose to the state which credits won’t transfer.

Now progress nationwide is speeding up.

Like Lebanon Valley, many private four-year colleges — which have historically been the stingiest with transfer students — are opening their doors a little wider to them.

In a push by the New England Board of Higher Education, or NEBHE, eight private colleges and universities in Connecticut this fall have agreed to provide a “transfer pathway” for community college graduates who meet a minimum grade-point average. The board is advocating for the same thing in Massachusetts and Rhode Island — at least two Massachusetts institutions already accept all or most general education credits from community college students there — and plans are to eventually make this work across state lines.

Students who transfer lose an average of 43 percent of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for.

Nearly 40 New England private colleges have strongly expressed interest in participating, said Emily Decatur, associate director for NEBHE’s regional student program and transfer initiatives.

For the last 10 years, “the drumbeat has been, ‘We need to fix this, we need to fix it,’” Decatur said. “The enrollment crisis we’re facing right now, of course that’s a factor. If that’s what it takes to fix it, that’s great.”

Related: As students fill summer courses, many ask: Why aren’t all colleges open in the summers?

In states where private four-year institutions are losing business to community colleges that are now tuition-free, they have another incentive to pursue transfer students. Carson-Newman University in Tennessee, for instance, has created a transfer collaboration with Pellissippi State Community College.

Dickinson College is among a growing number of private colleges recruiting transfer students from community colleges to increase its diversity. Credit: Harrison Jones for The Hechinger Report

For other private colleges, the transfer route can bolster their diversity. Dickinson College began a partnership with community colleges in 2009, admitting 58 transfer students from area community colleges since then as juniors; of those, 17 were of a race other than white, the college says.

“These are places they can improve their diversity scores,” said Wyner. “Particularly for selective institutions that are often criticized for being populated disproportionately by the most wealthy students, they’re looking for socioeconomic and racial diversity.”

But what they’re looking for most right now is paying customers.

“Transfer students have always been a possible answer to enrollment shortfalls,” said Holaday, of CollegeSource. “I hate to objectify transfer students, but they are great backfill for losses if [other] students stop out.”

More than two-thirds of admissions officers at four-year universities and colleges say transfer students have become “considerably important” in meeting enrollment goals, a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found.

“On the private side of things, they’re definitely feeling the squeeze due to the enrollment downturn,” said Decatur, of NEBHE. “There’s definitely a sense of urgency, and rightfully so.”

While schools in some parts of the country are desperate for enrollment, others are expecting unusually high numbers of projected transfer students for altogether different reasons. In California, for examples, reforms that help community college students avoid momentum-killing remedial courses mean that the number qualified to transfer to four-year universities may soon increase by as much as 50 percent, the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, calculates.

Related: How higher education’s own choices left it vulnerable to the pandemic crisis

“You need to be ready because these students are going to come,” said Marisol Cuellar Mejia, a senior research associate at PPIC.

“Across higher education, people have been talking about transfer for a long time — how to improve the process — and all of a sudden the pandemic brought it to the forefront.”

Anna Galas, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

California’s community college system has a goal of increasing the number of transfer students to California State and University of California campuses by 35 percent by 2022; a nonpartisan think tank characterized the current number as “stubbornly low.” And the state has leveraged its Cal Grants financial aid program to pressure private colleges to accept community college credits in the same way public institutions do, vastly increasing the number of transfer students they enroll.

Another initiative among western states is trying a different approach. Called the Interstate Passport, it helps students transfer among the 59 participating institutions in 17 states once they’ve met agreed-upon “learning outcomes,” rather than relying on credits. Most of the colleges and universities in the network are public, but three of the latest to sign up are private. It was this initiative that the university officials who issued their call to action said more institutions should join.

More than a quarter of students who transfer cross state lines, making it even harder for them to take their credit with them, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.

“Across higher education, people have been talking about transfer for a long time — how to improve the process — and all of a sudden the pandemic brought it to the forefront,” said Anna Galas, who coordinates the program for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

“As unfortunate as the circumstances are that we’re dealing with,” she said, “it’s allowed these institutions to address these longstanding challenges they’ve had, including transfer.”

This story about college transfer students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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