Posted by: Gregory Linton | 03/13/2012

The Frequency of Student Mobility in Higher Education

In the last post, I defined terms related the phenomenon of student mobility. In this post, I will summarize statistics that reveal how frequently students earn credits from more than one institution.

Several studies have revealed the frequency of student mobility. A. C. McCormick (1997) found that, of students who began their postsecondary education in 1989-90, 45 percent had enrolled as undergraduates at more than one institution by 1994. Of these students, 35 percent had actually transferred to another institution by 1994. He also found that 28 percent of students who began at a four-year institution transferred and that 43 percent of students who began at a two-year institution transferred.

The 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) found that “almost half (45%) of all seniors completed at least one course at another postsecondary institution since graduating from high school but prior to enrolling at their current institution.” Also, it found that “one-third of all seniors took at least one course at another postsecondary institution since first enrolling at their current institution” (p. 19).

The National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 found that 57 percent of students who were high school seniors in 1992 and earned more than 10 college credits attended more than one school as undergraduates. This statistic was 51 percent for the class of 1982 and 47 percent for the class of 1972. Nearly 60 percent of the class of 1992 who earned bachelor’s degrees attended more than one school as undergraduates. These trends show that student mobility has increased in frequency over the decades. The study also found that one out of five of those who started in a four-year college and earned a bachelor’s degree earned the degree from an institution other than the one in which they began their college education (Adelman, 2004).

The recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2012) builds on these earlier studies with additional data. This study focused on all students in the U.S. who began postsecondary education in the fall of 2006, a total of 2.8 million students. It found that one-third of all students change institutions at some time before earning a degree. Of those who transfer, 37 percent do it in their second year, but 13 percent transferred in the fourth year and an additional 9 percent transferred in the fifth year. Over one-fourth of all transfers crossed state lines. Transfer rates were similar across all types of institutions except that the rate for private for-profit institutions was much lower.

The mobility of students in higher education correlates with general geographic mobility of young adults. According to Schachter, “in 2003, about one-third of 20- to 29-year olds had moved in the previous year, more than twice the moving rate of all people 1 year and older” (2004, p. 3). These trends suggest that student mobility will become even more common in the future.

Although student flow is such a common phenomenon, it is often ignored by faculty, administrators, and policymakers when they plan and design programs and policies. The recent NSC report is beginning to bring attention to the complications caused by student mobility. In future posts, I will discuss how student mobility affect areas of higher education such as curriculum design, assessment of student learning, and statistical reporting.


Adelman, C. (2004, January). Principal indicators of student academic histories in postsecondary education, 1972-2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

McCormick, A. C. (1997, June). Transfer behavior among beginning postsecondary students: 1989-94. Postsecondary Education Descriptive Analysis Reports, NCES 97-266. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

National Survey of Student Engagement. (2005). Exploring different dimensions of student engagement: 2005 annual survey results. Retrieved May 23, 2006, from

Schachter, J. P. (2004, March). Geographic mobility: 2002 to 2003. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. Current Population Reports P20-549.

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