December 2005  

Surveys Highlight Challenges Posed by Student Transfer

For the first time, annual survey results for this year's National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) include responses to questions about attendance at multiple institutions. The survey results, reported in Exploring Different Dimensions of Student Engagement, indicate that a large share of today's undergraduates are attending multiple institutions. Similar findings have been reported in two recent reports from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Postsecondary Attainment, Attendance, Curriculum, and Performance and The Road Less Traveled?: Students Who Enroll at Multiple Institutions. These reports highlight the challenges of engaging and graduating transfer students.

General Education and Student Transfer: Fostering Intentionality and Coherence in State Systems, a new AAC&U publication supported by the Greater Expectations for Student Transfer project, provides another perspective on the problem of student transfer. Focusing on how to define and communicate educational purposes, this publication argues that ensuring programmatic coherence at the state level is essential at a time when so many students are attending multiple institutions. The publication includes an informal survey, conducted by AAC&U, of general education and transfer policies in the forty-eight states for which information was available. The survey found a wide variation in general education requirements and revealed that relatively few state systems currently have intentional statewide policies.


NSSE Findings on Student Transfer

  1. Almost half (45 percent) of all responding college seniors completed at least one course at another postsecondary institution since graduating from high school but prior to enrolling at their current institution.
  2. More than half (55 percent) of all transfer students took the majority of their courses from a vocational-technical school or from a community or junior college.
  3. Compared to students who began and persisted at a single four-year institution, students who transferred to a four-year institution from a two-year institution tended to have fewer interactions with faculty and fewer educationally enriching activities such as internships, community service, and senior capstone courses.
  4. Students who transferred from one four-year institution to another were more likely than other students to participate in active and collaborative learning, but were less likely to participate in educationally enriching activities or to view the campus as supportive; they also reported gaining less from college and were less satisfied with their experience than other students.

Findings from AAC&U's Survey of State Transfer Policies

  1. In twenty-two of the forty-eight states surveyed, the coordinating or governing board has specified a general education requirement that includes both total credits and particular numbers of credits in specific areas that students at all institutions must complete to earn a bachelor's degree.
  2. In three states with small higher education systems and a single university, general education requirements are set by the state university.
  3. Nine states have created a general education system that does not have the force of regulation but that, if followed by students, will automatically be accepted in transfer.
  4. In four states that have no statewide general education requirements, four-year institutions must consider those who complete the general education program at a two-year college as having satisfied lower-division general education requirements.
  5. Ten states have no statewide arrangement for either the design or the transfer of a general education program.

Exploring Different Dimensions of Student Engagement is available for download or purchase from NSSE. The two NCES reports mentioned above, Postsecondary Attainment, Attendance, Curriculum, and Performance and The Road Less Traveled? are also available for download.


  • Only ten states—Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Utah—have spelled out in detail the intentions of their general education requirements and transfer policies.
  • Relatively few states have statewide general education requirements that specify particular intellectual skills: five require attention to oral communication, five to technology, four to critical thinking, three to ethical reasoning, and one to lifelong understanding and development.
  • The most common reasons students gave for transferring to their current institution were the institution's location and the availability of a specific program of study.