When the coronavirus pandemic hit, our lives were thrown into chaos. For many college students, this meant a change from in-person instruction to virtual courses — meanwhile, many institutions simply chose to limit in-person learning.
To find out how this shift impacted colleges, Student Loan Hero researchers looked at the changes in transfer-in rates between fall 2019 and fall 2020 in every state, as well as at the 300 largest public and nonprofit colleges for which data was available.
Across all four-year schools with available data, the number of undergraduate students who transferred in from another school in fall 2020 was 5% lower than the figure in fall 2019.
- The number of undergraduate students transferring in from other schools was down 5% in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. In fall 2020, 791,571 transferred in from another school, versus 831,175 in fall 2019.
- Utah was one of 10 states where the number of students transferring into schools in 2020 was greater than in 2019. Utah leads the way with a 15.5% jump in the transfer-in number from 2019 to 2020, followed by New Hampshire (9.4%) and Arizona (8.6%).
- Among the 300 largest U.S. colleges by enrollment, four schools saw the number of students transferring in double between 2019 and 2020. These schools are the University of Chicago in Illinois (246.2%), Stanford University in California (235.0%), the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky (217.1%) and Northeastern University in Massachusetts (112.6%).
- Interest in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) grew in 2020 — and it may show in some schools’ transfer-in rates. Central State University in Ohio saw the biggest jump in transfer-in rates from 2019 to 2020 at 1,093.3%. Three other HBCUs saw jumps of at least 100% — Rust College in Mississippi (331.3%), Virginia University of Lynchburg (200%) and Florida Memorial University (100%).
The number of undergraduate students transferring in from other schools decreased 5% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, though that’s a smaller drop than what was seen pre-pandemic. From fall 2018 to fall 2019, the decrease was 7%. (Keep in mind that these figures are based on four-year schools with available transfer-in data.)
|Students transferring in (by the numbers)|
|Number of students transferring in||Year-over-year percentage change|
The fall of 2020 was tumultuous for students. Many found themselves dealing with housing insecurity — and even homelessness — in addition to starting online classes. Some schools even renegotiated financial aid packages due to the shift away from in-person education.
With all the changes in the pandemic’s wake, the drop in transfer-in rates doesn’t surprise Andrew Pentis, Student Loan Hero senior writer.
“From the student’s perspective, we should also consider that many families were likely hesitant to make a school change at a time of general upheaval,” he says. “Having to go through the cumbersome mechanizations of transferring was probably not atop the list of priorities for many families that craved some degree of consistency or normalcy as COVID-19 upended other corners of their lives.”
There were 10 states where the number of students transferring into schools in 2020 exceeded the number in 2019. These ranged from 0.3% in Oregon to 15.5% in Utah. (These figures were compiled by adding the data from all the four-year schools in each state where figures were available.)
Utah (No. 1) and Nebraska (No. 7) didn’t issue lockdown orders at the onset of the pandemic, but the vast majority of the top-ranking states did.
Most of Utah’s increase in transfer-in students came from Western Governors University, a fully online university based in Salt Lake City that saw just over 3,000 more students transfer into the institution in 2020 compared to the fall before.
By contrast, the University of Nebraska Omaha, which accounts for the most transfers in Nebraska, was a more traditional in-person educational institution pre-pandemic that offered online courses. Since, the school has frozen tuition rates through 2023 and decreased the cost of online classes to make it more in line with in-person courses.
|Transfer-in changes from fall 2019 to fall 2020, by state|
|Rank||State||Number of students transferring in in 2019||Number of students transferring in in 2020||% change|
|4||District of Columbia||1,677||1,775||5.8%|
Among the 300 U.S. public and nonprofit colleges with the largest fall 2020 enrollment for which full data was available, four schools saw the number of transfer-in students double — or more — from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Those schools were:
- University of Chicago: 246.2%
- Stanford University: 235.0%
- University of the Cumberlands: 217.1%
- Northeastern University: 112.6%
These top four schools are all private universities, though with each being in a different part of the country, there isn’t a regional correlation. Of the 300 schools, 107 had increases. By contrast, the last ranked school saw a decrease of 44.9%.
Interest in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) grew in 2020 amid international protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Twenty-four of the HBCUs with available data saw their transfer-in numbers increase during this time, from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
|Transfer-in changes from fall 2019 to fall 2020, by HBCU|
|Rank||HBCU||State||Number of students transferring in in 2019||Number of students transferring in in 2020||% change|
|1||Central State University||OH||119||1,420||1,093.3%|
|3||Virginia University of Lynchburg||VA||1||3||200.0%|
|4||Florida Memorial University||FL||18||36||100.0%|
|5||Alabama A&M University||AL||114||174||52.6%|
|8||Elizabeth City State University||NC||158||201||27.2%|
|9||Xavier University of Louisiana||LA||69||85||23.2%|
|12||Albany State University||GA||306||368||20.3%|
|15||Alcorn State University||MS||175||191||9.1%|
|16||Clark Atlanta University||GA||136||147||8.1%|
|17||Fort Valley State University||GA||178||193||8.4%|
|19||Prairie View A&M University||TX||431||462||7.2%|
|20||Southern University and A&M College||LA||331||352||6.3%|
|22||Bluefield State College||WV||149||152||2.0%|
|23||University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff||AR||138||140||1.4%|
|24||Winston-Salem State University||NC||421||425||1.0%|
Central State University in Ohio, for example, saw a 1,093% jump in transfer-in rates from 2019 to 2020. Like the three other HBCUs that saw jumps of at least 100% — Rust College in Mississippi (331%), Virginia University of Lynchburg (200%) and Florida Memorial University (100%) — it isn’t in one of the top 10 states for transfer-in students. In addition, the latter three schools have a strong religious heritage.
The rise in transfer-in students for HBCUs comes even though Black transfer students, as a whole, had the largest decline of any racial group in the 2020-21 academic year, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (Note that the center’s report covers July 2020 to June 2021, so there’s some overlap, but the periods aren’t exact.)
If you’re considering transferring colleges, there are some things you’ll need to know to make it a smooth transition:
- Understand the impact on your financial aid. “When you transfer from one school to another, your student loans don’t follow you,” Pentis says. “You would need to cancel the debt, if it’s not too late, and apply for new funding at your next campus.”
- Make sure your classes will count. Because schools create their own curriculums for various majors, the credits on your transcript may not always transfer to a new program. Reach out to any prospective schools to make sure you won’t be set back.
- Look into scholarships for transfer students. As with any scholarship, the fewer students competing for funding, the better. Seeking out scholarships limited to transfer students can help increase your chances of getting money for college and staying out of debt.
- Time it right. “Every time you borrow, it’s your current school that certifies your attendance and gives your lender the greenlight,” Pentis says. “So transferring mid-semester might not be so appealing if you’ve already borrowed.” If you can, waiting for the end of the year can be a simpler option. You’d complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as usual for federal loans and apply for private loans if necessary.
- Talk to your private lenders. “If you’ve already borrowed private student loans and are considering transferring or taking a gap year, talk to your lender about how it would treat your repayment,” Pentis says. Some lenders will give you a grace period, after which you’d have to make full or interest-only payments. Other lenders might let you continue to defer payments until after you’ve left or graduated from your new school.