The Complexity of Calculating Transfer Students’ Graduation Rates

The National Student Clearinghouse released their “Transfer and Progress: Fall 2023 Report” this week, as the data showed that students transferring into a new institution increased by 5.3 percent when compared to fall 2022. Interestingly, upward transfer students (from 2-year to 4-year institutions) gained the most with a 7.7-percent increase, which is the first increase since the pandemic started 4 years ago. The release of this report coincides with a shift of focus in our continuing blog series using the IPEDS Outcome Measures (OM) data. While our previous blog posts have focused on graduation rates for traditional full-time, first-time entering students, one of the benefits of the IPEDS Outcome Measures (OM) data is that it tracks students who are “Non-First-Time” enrollees (i.e., transfer students) as well. In this blog post, we will explore graduation rates for full-time transfer students at public universities in Texas to deepen our understanding of this often-overlooked group of undergraduates. NoteBecause the OM data includes 8-year graduation rate data, we continue to use the most recent data from the 2014 fall cohort in our analysis of transfer student graduation rates.

Statewide Averages for Public Universities in Texas

  • The stacked bar chart below shows data for 4-, 6-, and 8-year graduation rates across all public universities in Texas for non-first-time (transfer), full-time entering students who completed their bachelor’s degree at the original university to which they transferred. 
  • The first segment (light blue) aligns to the 4-year graduation rate, while the second segment (darker blue) aligns to the 6-year graduation rate, and the third segment (purple) aligns to the 8-year graduation rate.
  • The “clock” for measuring time-to-degree started in fall 2014 with initial transfer enrollment. Degree completion status was calculated at the end of AY2018 for 4-year, AY2020 for 6-year, and AY2022 for 8-year graduation rates.
  • The statewide average for full-time transfer students who completed their degree within 4 years of initial transfer enrollment was 58% in the fall 2014 cohort. That percentage jumped to 66% for the “Bachelors in 6 Years” rate, bumping up slightly to 68% when the timeframe extends to 8 years after entering the university.
Graduation Rates for Public Universities in Texas: Full-time Transfer Students

Graduation Rates by Public University in Texas

  • In the university-level visualization below, we can see that Texas A&M University has the highest rate-of-success for transfer students at each graduation checkpoint in the OM data: 81% within 4 years, 86% within 6 years, and 87% within 8 years.
  • Eight other universities graduated more than 70% of transfer students within 8 years of initial enrollment: UT Austin, UT Dallas, Tarleton State University, UH Clear Lake, UT San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Sam Houston State University, and UNT Dallas.
  • The largest jumps from the 4-year to the 6-year graduation mark occurred at five universities that saw double-digit increases: Texas Southern University (13 percentage point increase), Texas Tech University (12 percentage points), and UT El Paso, Midwestern State University, and University of Houston (10 percentage points).

So What?

When reviewing the OM graduation data for transfer students, one question that might come to mind is whether an 8-year window for graduation after initial transfer enrollment is meaningful. Looking at the far-right of the stacked bar chart we see that 17 institutions have less than a 2% increase from 6- to 8-year rate calculations. A quick scan of public university systems in Texas shows that approximately 45% of transfer students to public universities were classified as juniors upon arrival in fall 2022, with another 8% classified as seniors. This means that over half of transfer students are considered “upper division” with at least 60 semester credit hours (SCH) earned prior to transferring to a Texas public university. With approximately 85% of undergraduate students at public colleges and universities enrolled in less than 15 SCH in fall 2022, it is unlikely that most students who transfer to public universities with 60+ SCH completed those hours in a traditional two-year (for juniors) or three-year (for seniors) timeframe. 

Although the clock for calculating graduation rates in the OM data starts at the point of transfer, many students are likely to have had more than just two or three years of attendance prior to transferring. What looks like a 4-year graduation rate in the OM data may actually reflect a 7-year, 8-year, or longer history of postsecondary enrollment in total to attain a bachelor’s degree. For example, extending to the 8-year calculation in the OM data means that someone who transferred in fall 2014 with 4 years of previous college/university attendance actually represents a 12-year graduation cycle. This type of lengthy timeframe in no way diminishes the successful achievement of that student. One could argue the hypothetical 12 years for a bachelor’s degree is an even greater demonstration of fortitude and commitment, or what the Finnish call, “sisu.” However, from a policymaking perspective, care must be taken to understand fully the complexities involved in accurately calculating graduation rates for transfer students as it pertains to bachelor’s degree attainment. 

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