The Hidden World of Transfer Students

Most educational institutions have an idealized vision of how students would progress through their studies – they’d matriculate, successfully navigate their coursework, and obtain a degree, all at the same college or university. The hallowed halls in which they take their very first introductory class would be the same ones where they’d take their very last final exams. These students, models of true success, would be in the same seats for orientation as graduation.

Essentially, this is what retention rates measure: how many students re-enroll year after year at the same institution. Of course, there is some validity to this – the fact that a student comes back to the same campus to continue his or her studies may very well be a sign of his or her academic success. However, a student who doesn’t return to the same campus may actually be doing equally well, or even better, despite not being retained. Despite the fact that retention metrics are designed to help students, they actually ignore major demographics.

Perhaps the most important “invisible” category when it comes to retention is transfer students. The fact that retention disregards these students is especially significant when you consider that, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “37.2 percent of students changed schools at least once within six years, and of these, 45 percent changed their institution more than once.” Read on to learn more about the “hidden” (yet significant) world of transfer students.

How Retention Metrics Work

Typically, retention rates measure how many students from the same cohort at the same school re-enrolled from one year to the next (typically from freshman year to sophomore year). For example, if 300 new freshmen enter University A and the next year, only 250 of these same freshmen come back to continue working toward their degrees, University A would have a retention rate of 83 percent. The ultimate goal for most higher education institutions is to have a 100 percent retention rate, with every freshman student re-enrolling.

Why Transfers Get Lost in the Shuffle

Retention rates are typically measured internally, for the purposes of improving student experiences and success at a particular school. This means that retention rates do not and cannot take transfer students into account. Transfer students, by definition, have not been “retained” by a given school – they’ve decided to switch institutions for some reason. Therefore, if a student left University A for University B, she would not be considered “retained” for either school.

While it’s technically true that neither University A nor University B “retained” this student, the fact that she becomes an entirely negative statistic for University A and a likely nonexistent one for University B highlights a larger problem with retention practices. These metrics are supposed to reflect student success, but they typically fail to fully capture what truly propels students forward toward their degrees. While they’re undoubtedly motivated by good intentions, retention rates are highly simplified, institutional statistics that do little to capture or catalyze the complex, individual process behind genuine student success.

A Tale of Two Transfers

To better understand why retention metrics are unsatisfactory and transfer students’ unique, personal experiences must be taken into account, consider the following contrasting case studies.

First, let’s look at Mary. She’s a physics major at a small local college. Due to her outstanding performance and intense interest in quantum theory, her professor encourages her to transfer to an Ivy League university several states away. She applies as a transfer student and gets in, then completes the rest of her degree at her second, more prestigious institution, where she can learn more about her passion and build the network she needs to get into a graduate program.

In contrast, consider a different transfer scenario: Ella enrolls as a music major at a large university. She struggles with music theory but doesn’t reach out for the assistance she needs. Her grades slip and she knows she’s at risk for expulsion if she doesn’t improve them in the next semester. Since she doesn’t believe she can succeed, she moves back to her hometown and enrolls in community college as an English major.

Mary and Ella clearly have two very different circumstances when it comes to student success, yet they’re counted as the same by retention rates. This system fails both these students and their institutions, who should be using this type of student data to enhance techniques that work (a la Mary) and improve systems that don’t (a la Ella).

The Silver Lining for Student Success

As the case study above shows, transfers are not always institutional failures, yet retention rates paint them this way. While this is troubling, the good news is that, when measured properly, the true story of transfer students reflects much better on overall higher education outcomes. The American Council on Education reviewed “data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) [that] followed students across institutions and included the progress of students who transferred and graduated from institutions other than the first one in which they enrolled.” In doing so, they determined that, while six-year degree attainment has been reported at “54 percent,” the actual figure is  “69 percent for all undergraduate students” when transfers are followed.

We Can Help Ensure Transfers’ Triumphs

At The Myers-Briggs Company, we recognize that transfers are a vital segment of higher education students and need to be tracked properly to ensure their success. Our VitaNavis® Analytics platform can help these pupils successfully navigate their college experience. With our technology, they can assess their interests and personality, learn more about their qualities as students, discover potential career pathways, and much more. Advisors at our partner institutions use VitaNavis to help ensure transfers come in with the right tools and are switching institutions for the right reasons.

How Can Persistence Help Your Transfer Students?

To learn more about how persistence can help your transfer students find their interests, download our white paper The Persistence Perspective on Retention.


The Hidden World of Transfer Students

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