Publications & Research

Survey: Pandemic Disrupted Plans of Nearly 40% of Community College Students on Verge of Transferring

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many aspects of higher education in the past 18 months. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, the pandemic derailed the dreams and plans of transfer students who had made considerable progress toward a bachelor’s degree and were on the verge of transitioning from a community college to a university. Post-pandemic, addressing the challenges outlined by this report will be a test of our shared commitment to equitable student success.

In the spring 2021, the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges (RP Group) surveyed nearly 8,000 students across 67 community colleges who had completed at least 45 transferable units by fall 2020. The report summarizing research findings, supported by College Futures Foundation, is now available – read it here.

The research found that nearly 40% of the students surveyed said that the pandemic had impacted their transfer plans. The students most affected were nonbinary, Native American, or ages 18-25.  The impact ranged from students changing their pathways to delaying their plans to canceling their plans altogether. Among students who had been accepted for transfer at a university, one in 10 either deferred their admission or decided not to go at all. Even before the pandemic, students had struggled with completing the transfer journey. A 2017 RP Group report of students enrolled between 2010 and 2015 found that fewer than 30% of those who intended to transfer did so within six years. The pandemic and subsequent economic upheavals and campus shutdowns intensified challenges already facing transfer students.

Students surveyed cited several reasons for their change of plans:

Financial constraints (cited by 30% of survey respondents). One student shared: “When the pandemic hit, my financial situation grew worse. I was beginning to reach my final classes before transferring as a computer science major, and I had to make the conscious decision to put my transferring to CSU on hold and obtain my associate degree at [my community college] to immediately enter the workforce to stabilize my future living situation within two years.”

Sadly, one student shared that their father, who had provided financial support, died of COVID.

Difficulty learning in an online environment and preference for in-person learning (cited by 22% of survey respondents). The campus shutdowns left students feeling isolated and cut off from support. One student shared that virtual learning created challenges due to the lack of access to on campus equipment, staff support and peer connection.

Delays in their ability to complete coursework, including unavailable classes cited by 17%). One student said: “I am pushing back my transfer plans by one year because the rest of the classes I need to take are lab classes. The virtual lab classes do not work for me, and they are something I feel need to be taken in person to truly understand the learning material.”

I am pushing back my transfer plans by one year because the rest of the classes I need to take are lab classes. The virtual lab classes do not work for me, and they are something I feel need to be taken in person to truly understand the learning material.

Challenges managing competing priorities (cited by 9% of survey respondents). As one student said: “Having a child at home while doing homeschooling is difficult. My transfer plans have to wait until my child goes back to in-person learning.”

The campus shutdowns left students without important supports. Nearly 40% of students reported that they had difficulty accessing resources such as counselors and transfer center staff during the pandemic, both at community colleges and the universities where they planned to transfer. Emails and voice mails went unanswered. One student shared: “I actually missed the deadline to transfer this year—spring 2021. It’s hard when you can only contact your counselor online (when they are available). I wish emails were sent or [that I] would have been contacted.”

I actually missed the deadline to transfer this year—spring 2021. It’s hard when you can only contact your counselor online (when they are available).

Many students said they were putting their plans on hold until things get back to” normal” and that they did not want to pay university tuition for an online experience.

Even as the pandemic wanes, students anticipate that they will face continuing challenges in the coming year. Previous RP Group research established four factors as impacting a student’s transfer capacity: University Affordability, School-Life Balance, Pathway Navigation, and Support Network. Of those, affordability is the only factor that students do not anticipate improving post- pandemic. About half of surveyed students, particularly students of color, first-generation students, and those over the age of 50 said that university affordability could impact their transfer progress in the coming year.

College Futures Foundation is proud to partner with the RP Group to uncover important findings that can be used to improve transfer pathways for students. Read the full report here.