Mapping Transfer Pathways: How Data and Equitable Admissions Policies can Support Transfer Student Success

Published Dec 20, 2021

By: Janiel Santos

Like many students across the country, Coleen began her journey to a four-year degree at a community college. “When I was 18, I realized that I was going to be paying for college on my own and it hadn’t really hit me before, like exactly how much it costs,” Coleen explained.  So she decided to first enroll at Ivy Tech Community College, “because it was affordable, and it had the degree program I was looking for,” with the goal of eventually transferring and earning a bachelor’s degree.

While transfer pathways can offer students like Coleen an affordable and accessible route to earning a four-year degree, they too often fall short of delivering on this promise. For example, Coleen shared that not knowing which of her credits would transfer or how students like her fare after transferring had her wishing for “a better map” of the transfer process.i  

As set forth in The Most Important Door that Will Ever OpenIHEP’s 2021 report on recruitment, admissions, and enrollment policies—institutional and system-wide policies and practices limit the efficacy of transfer pathways for students across the country. For every 100 students who enroll in community college, 31 percent transfer to a four-year institution and just 14.6 percent complete a bachelors’ degree within six years.ii While students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are especially likely to begin their postsecondary journey at a community college,iii White students who start at community colleges are twice as likely as their Black and Latinx peers to attain their bachelor’s degree within six years.iv

Federal, state, and institutional policymakers have the power to close these racial and economic gaps and promote equitable access to the better living and better life that higher education can provide. Policymakers will open the doors of opportunity for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underserved AAPI students, as well as students from low-income backgrounds by updating transfer policies in four key ways:


  1. By leveraging data to inform equitable transfer policies, federal and state policymakers promote equitable postsecondary value and empower students, families, and higher education leaders. Increased data transparency not only promotes equitable postsecondary value, but also empowers students, families, and leaders to make informed postsecondary decisions. Currently, our data systems lack complete information regarding student pathways, especially those taken by transfer students.v To ensure stakeholders can answer important, equity-minded questions, policymakers should establish a student-level data network that connects data to illuminate student pathways and outcomes, especially for transfer Access to robust data helps institutions implement evidence-based policies to support successful transfers, and access to better data can help students like Coleen understand how different institutions will support their degree progression, as well as how to minimize financial cost and the potential for credit loss.


  1. By actively recruiting and enrolling community college students, four-year institutions promote equitable outcomes while also boosting their own enrollment and increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity on their campuses. Though four-year institutions spend a substantial amount of money recruiting undergraduates, the median four-year institution only allocates three percent of its recruitment budget to transfer student recruitment.vii As a result, transfer students comprise a disappointingly low share of enrollment at four-year institutions. Transfer students make up less than 10 percent of the population at selective universities, and less than six percent at highly selective public institutions.viii It is the responsibility of four-year institutions, selective institutions especially, to implement strategies that pave the way for successful transfers, such as building strong relationships with nearby community colleges and developing regional and national strategies to bring in community college students from diverse geographic areas. This plan of action is within institutions’ best interests as enrollment challenges increase.ix x 

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  1. By providing financial and social supports for students throughout the transfer process, four-year institutions can promote a transfer-receptive culture that welcomes and nurtures transfer students’ success.xi Studies have found that transfer students often feel disconnected from their campus communities and use fewer support services than traditional students,xii which can harm their academic progress.xiii  Services that build such a culture include mentoring opportunities, academic advising, faculty engagement, transfer orientation, transition programs, career counseling, and other steps to help students thrive.xiv Additionally, four-year institutions should review financial aid eligibility requirements to ensure transfer students are able to access the resources necessary to first enroll in the institutions and then succeed. Coleen’s dream of earning a bachelor’s degree became feasible after she learned she was eligible for a need-based financial aid award from Purdue University that covered her unmet tuition and fees.xv 

  1. By participating in—and clearly communicating—articulation agreements with community collegesfour-year institutions help students mitigate credit loss. Unclear transfer pathways are particularly difficult for students to navigate. For example, when receiving institutions have the discretion to subjectively accept or deny a student’s incoming credits, students run the risk of credit loss. Such a loss can cost them additional financial resources, time, and energy and slow their overall degree progression. Nationwide, approximately 43 percent of credits are lost through the transfer process,xvi with students who transfer from community colleges to four-year public institutions losing an average of one in five credits.xvii To ensure equitable transfer outcomes, institutions should adopt a Transfer Affordability Guarantee (TAG). A TAG is a student-centered and equity-driven partnership between institutions and systems that provides a mapped pathway to transfer with clearly defined articulation agreements that communicate how students can seamlessly transfer credits between institutions. Institutions who are transparent in their transfer process save students seeking to transfer from losing valuable progress toward earning their degree.

Policymakers and institution leaders, through their combined efforts, have the power to open the most important door to a better living and better life for the many students like Coleen who enroll in community colleges with the goal of transferring to a four-year institution. Until policymakers at the federal, state, and institution levels act and implement these policy changes, students will be forced to navigate messy, unclear, and inequitable transfer pathways that don’t consistently lead to degree completion.


Eckerson Peters, E., Janice Roberson, A., Voight, M. (2019). The cost of opportunity: Student stories of college affordability. The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

ii Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P.K., Yuan, X., Nathan, A. & Hwang, Y. (2017, updated 2021). Tracking transfer: Measures of effectiveness in helping community college students to complete bachelor’s degrees (Signature Report No. 13). National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

iii Bussey, K., Dancy, K., Grey Parker, A., Eckerson Peters, E., Voight, M. (2021). The most important door that will ever open: Realizing the mission of higher education through equitable admission policies. The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

iv Espinosa, L. L., Turk, J. M., Taylor, M., & Chessman, H. M. (2019). Race and ethnicity in higher education: A status report. American Council on Education. https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl. com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf

v Postsecondary Value Commission. (2021b). Ensuring equitable postsecondary value: An action agenda.

vi Postsecondary Value Commission. (2021b). Ensuring equitable postsecondary value: An action agenda.

vii Ruffalo Noel Levitz. (2018). 2018 Cost of Recruiting an Undergraduate Student Report.…

vii IHEP analysis of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Found in Bussey, K., Dancy, K., Grey Parker, A., Eckerson Peters, E., Voight, M. (2021). The most important door that will ever open: Realizing the mission of higher education through equitable admission policies. The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

ix National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (June 10, 2021). Spring 2021: Current term enrollment estimates.

x National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (December 21, 2020). Covid-19 transfer, mobility, and progress: Fall 2020 final report.…

xi A transfer-receptive culture refers to the institutional commitment by a four-year college or university to provide the support needed for students to transfer successfully. Found in Dimpal, J., Herrera, A., Bernal, S., & Solorzano, D. (2011). Critical race theory and the transfer function: Introducing a transfer receptive culture. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 35 (3), 252–266. DOI:10.1080/10668926.2011.526525

xii Wang, X., & Wharton, B. (2010, January 1). The differential patterns of college involvement between transfer and native students. Journal of The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, 22(1), 49–66(18).

xiii Wang, X. (2009). Baccalaureate attainment and college persistence of community college transfer students at four-year institutions. Research in Higher Education, 50, 570–588.

xiv Education Commission of the States. (2009, October). Transfer and articulation: Paving the way to degree completion. The Progress of Education Reform 10(5).

xv Eckerson Peters, E., Janice Roberson, A., Voight, M. (2019). The cost of opportunity: Student stories of college affordability. The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

xvi U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2017, August). Higher education: Students need more information to help reduce challenges in transferring college credits.

xvii U.S. GAO, 2017