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CAEL Pathways Blog

These Everyday Best Practices for Adult Learning Shine During National Transfer Student Week

The observation of National Transfer Student Week highlights several factors pivotal to adult learner success. After all, transfer students are overwhelmingly adult learners. CAEL has long called attention to intersecting issues from the perspective of transfer and adult student success. Below, Kari Shafenberg, CAEL's director of initiatives, details how postsecondary institutions can add value for transfer students not only through more seamless acceptance of prior classroom learning but also of prior experiential learning, through CPL. Kari, who held higher ed leadership positions in policy implementation and transfer initiatives prior to joining CAEL, offers several other best practices, arguing that a challenging recruiting environment makes opportunities to better serve transfer students all the more compelling for both students and institutions.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 37.2 percent of first-time students will transfer at least once within six years of enrolling in college. In the 2020-2021 academic year alone, there were 2.1 million transfer students. While a substantial portion of overall student enrollment, the total enrollment of transfer students has dropped dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, transfer enrollment across the country has seen a loss of close to 300,000 students, or 13.5%[1]. This affects every demographic, gender, ethnicity, and transfer process, including lateral, reverse, and upward transfers. And for the students who do transfer, they face increasing challenges and decreasing retention rates. Loss of earned credits, insufficient advising, complex transfer policies, and convoluted articulation agreements result in lost time and money for these students[2]

With all of these barriers facing transfer students, it can feel as though the decline in registration is inevitable and the trends irreversible. But all is not lost! In fact, as institutions grapple with how to address this shifting transfer environment, now is the perfect time to reconsider existing policies, practices, and cultures, identifying new ways to support transfer students, as well as to welcome back returning students, who may have stopped out without completion of a postsecondary credential. 

One of the biggest challenges facing transfer students is loss of progress toward program completion. A study from the Government Accountability Office estimates that students lose up to 43% of their earned credits when they transfer, which averages to about 13 credits, or one full semester.[3] This is further amplified by students who transfer to multiple institutions, losing credit with each transition. 

The transfer student population includes any student with previously earned credits. In 2019, it was estimated that 36 million adults have some college and no degree[4], and of those students, most have been out of their program for approximately 10 years or more. These students, averaging in their late 30s, often spend that time working and gaining professional experience in their field. Transfer policies with time limits can have a negative impact on students with larger gaps in enrollment, requiring them to retake courses they have successfully completed in the past. This leads to frustration and concern that the years of experience and professional navigation they have managed are dismissed as insignificant by their institution of higher learning. 

There are several ways to acknowledge students' earned credits and recognize their progress prior to beginning at an institution. Transfer students should be encouraged to consider pursuing credit for prior learning (CPL), which allows them to capitalize on their lived experiences away from the classroom, reducing financial burdens, increasing retention, and improving equity[5]. Nationally, concepts of what constitutes transfer credit are expanding to include professional training, certifications, microcredentials, and nonlinear progression between institutions. 

Increased support, especially for students early in their programs, and ownership of their academic journey also improves the experience for transfer students and provides the empowerment and structure necessary for them to be successful over time. Providing guidance through the steps of transferring, including obtaining records from all past institutions, and ensuring clear advising regarding program choice and transferability of course credits provides a clearer picture of the overall timeframe to completion, the anticipated expense, and the opportunities for development along the way. These efforts require student-focused policies, professional development and training for faculty and staff on these policies, and creating a culture of adaptivity, which allows institutions to grow with their students' needs. 

By creating more effective transfer policies, either through increased articulation agreements, transfer pathways, or more flexible transfer limits, institutions can improve credential attainment, as students with better transfer outcomes have higher rates of program completion[6]. Looking at the stark reality of transfer student enrollments, it is critical that institutions recognize that there are actionable steps available to increase transferability of courses, simplify the process of changing or returning to a program, and provide wraparound services tailored to the needs of this population. This National Transfer Student Week is a great opportunity to evaluate how your transfer students are currently being served, and where there is room for growth. 


[1] Transfer enrollment declined 13.5% since the pandemic started https://www.highereddive.com/news/transfer-enrollment-declined-135-since-the-pandemic-started/631672/?:%202022-09-13%20Higher%20Ed%20Dive%20%5Bissue:44473%5D

[2]EFFECTIVE PRACTICES THAT SUPPORT TRANSFER STUDENTS https://www.acenet.edu/Research-Insights/Pages/Student-Support/Effective-Practices-Transfer-Students.aspx

[3] Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/686530.pdf

[4] Some College, No Degree. https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/SCND_Report_2019.pdf

[5] The PLA Boost. https://www.wiche.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/PLA-Boost-Report-CAEL-WICHE-Revised-Dec-2020.pdf

[6] What We Know About Transfer https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/what-we-know-about-transfer.pdf






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