The common perception of the process of pursuing a college degree is that a person starts at a given institution and stays there until they complete the program. For many students, the reality is that the path to a degree is not so direct and straightforward. In fact, a report released in 2012 by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center states that one-third of college students switch institutions before earning a degree. That is a trend that has been increasing in recent years and is commonly referred to as “student swirl.”

What is student swirl? - 2013 higher education trend

What is student swirl?

The factors contributing to increased student swirl are varied. The increase in online education and the increasing educational options that have come with that are likely a factor. Changing student demographics and the sheer increase in students enrolled in college have also been attributed to the phenomenon. As with many issues surrounding higher education, tuition costs are a factor, particularly when combined with the struggles of the U.S. economy since 2008.

Student swirl is an issue that affects two separate areas of concern: student retention and transfer policies. On the one hand, institutions will want to minimize the number of students who transfer out before completing their programs, but on the other they need to find ways to best serve transfer students. Research has a role on both ends of the equation.

On the retention side, it is important to understand why students leave prematurely. Is it because of dissatisfaction, financial issues, academic struggles or something else? Sometimes, transferring to a new institution is a money issue; this is especially true in cases of “reverse transfers” where a student transfers from a four-year institution to a community college. In the case of community college transfers, some students may enroll with no intention of ever earning a degree there and transferring to a four-year school at the earliest opportunity or maybe just taking one or two courses. Institutions that serve a large number of adult learners may find that students transfer to schools that offer an easier commute, have more flexible course schedules and formats or simply because the student has relocated due to their job or that of a spouse. Essentially institutions need to get a sense of what factors are within their control to address and which are not, and an essential first step to doing that is surveying those who leave the institution in order to find out what factors contributed to the decision.

In terms of transfers, the increase in student swirl means that many schools will be dealing with more transfer students than was the case in the past. RMS’s past student research shows that how an institution deals with a transfer student’s past credits can be a factor in their overall satisfaction with the school. In some cases, it can even lead to eventual disenrollment or deciding not to enroll at all. Beyond credits, transfer students face a number of issues in terms of feeling like they fit in with the new school and learning about all of the resources and support services that are available to them. Surveying transfer students to learn how well they are adapting can help colleges figure out what additional measures they may need to help make them successful in the new environment.

If  you would like to know more about how RMS can provide research resources to deal with swirl or other enrollment management issues, please contact our Business Development Director Sandy Baker, at or by calling (315) 635-9802.