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Stealth Transfer: How Former Dual Enrollment Students Are Disrupting Postsecondary Education for the Better

Students seated in a classroom working in groups

This post originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed’s Beyond Transfer blog.

I was 19 years old when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree—just a year after completing an associate degree at my early college high school and “transferring” into college. As a low-income student, my best opportunity to fast-track into an affordable college degree was dual enrollment. Dual enrollment put me in the unusual position of entering college after high school with 60 transfer credits.

I was a stealth transfer student.

Starting university fresh out of high school and with an associate degree in hand, I was considered a regular transfer student; however, I struggled to understand my role as both a freshman and a transfer student. The university offered little onboarding assistance for transfer students, and its robust programming for first-time students was not well designed to help me build community and choose a direction. Despite these challenges, I was able to explore my interest in a career in higher education by networking with administrators across campus, which led to internships in the university's Orientation and Dean of Students offices. Fast-forward to May 2023, four years after graduating from high school: I completed a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, and I am working full-time with the Community College Research Center on research aimed at improving the dual enrollment student experience across the country.

Combatting Inequitable Bachelor’s Attainment Through Stealth Transfer

Despite the growing number of transfer students nationwide, only a small fraction of students actually transfers and graduates. This is particularly true for low-income students, who, compared to their higher income peers, are much less likely to transfer to a four-year institution (25% vs. 41%) and to earn a bachelor's degree within six years (11% vs. 22%). Moreover, the number of transfer students younger than 20 is on the rise, especially compared to students aged 25–29 (9% vs. -21%). In order to improve transfer success and increase educational equity, two- and four-year institutions must better utilize dual enrollment as an on-ramp to a bachelor’s degree and beyond.

Stealth transfer students and their pathway are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Here's why.

Dual enrollment is expanding rapidly. My story is no longer uncommon, especially as 34% of high school graduates nationally have taken some type of dual enrollment course. The upward trend in dual enrollment shows no signs of slowing down: The number of students 17 years old or younger taking college courses increased by 11.1% across all two- and four-year institutions from spring 2021 to spring 2023. This growth rate is notable when compared to the 14.2% decline observed among students aged 25–29.

The number of former dual enrollment students at two- and four-year institutions is increasing. Former dual enrollment students contribute a significant share of incoming enrollment at two- and four-year institutions, accounting for 1 in every 5 entrants at two-year public and four-year private nonprofit institutions and 1 in every 4 entrants at public four-year institutions, with the majority of students having completed their dual enrollment coursework at their local community college. These numbers will continue to grow as more high school students graduate with dual enrollment credits. Students would rather take dual enrollment courses—and dual enrollment continues to provide students with a better means of acceleration—than Advanced Placement (AP) courses and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, which are less likely to guarantee students college credit after graduation.

Colleges and universities can benefit from better utilizing the stealth transfer pathway. Stealth transfer students provide two important benefits to two- and four-year institutions. First, they have high degree completion rates, leading to improved outcomes data at both community colleges and universities. In a CCRC report on students who took community college dual enrollment courses from fall 2010 to summer 2016, researchers found that 46% of dual enrollment students who started at a community college and 64% who started at a four-year college earned a college credential within five years. Second, stealth transfer students can bring additional value to the educational community. Former dual enrollment students have experience managing high school and college coursework simultaneously, which allows them to support other students who are navigating the transition from high school to college and, in some cases, transferring from one college to another. Former dual enrollment students may also have experience navigating the challenges of transferring to a new four-year institution, which can be helpful to other transfer students. By creating a transfer-student-specific version of the first-year experience programming designed for freshmen, institutions can capitalize on this by helping transfer students connect with one another, form a sense of community, and adjust more easily to their new academic environment.

Dual enrollment can provide access to a postsecondary education for underrepresented students. Dual enrollment has provided a means for millions of high school students across the U.S. to get a jump start on a college education. Additionally, many dual enrollment programs are free to students and families, making college more affordable for low-income students and increasing their chances of completing their bachelor's and graduate degrees. Acquiring even 15 or fewer college credits in high school can save a lot of time and money for students who need it the most. As dual enrollment programs continue to grow, colleges and their K-12 partners are increasingly rethinking how their programs can more intentionally prioritize college access and equity, particularly by broadening access to bachelor's and graduate degrees.

Next Steps and Considerations for Better Leveraging Stealth Transfer

Many dual enrollment programs still unfairly exclude students due to lack of outreach (e.g., students not knowing dual enrollment exists on their high school campuses), restrictive policies (e.g., high-stakes placement testing), and old mindsets about whom dual enrollment programs are for. Despite this, researchers and practitioners across the country are working to make dual enrollment programs more equitable. They are also realizing that the work does not stop when students leave their dual enrollment program but continues at two- and four-year institutions.

To improve the experience of stealth transfer students and better leverage dual enrollment as an on-ramp to bachelor’s degrees, practitioners across institutional type should consider the following questions:

  • How can colleges and universities work more actively with K-12 schools to encourage students from underrepresented groups to participate in dual enrollment as an on-ramp to a college program of study?
  • How can colleges and universities prepare for the influx of stealth transfer students? Specifically, how can practitioners across different institutions address the particular needs of students who function as both freshmen and transfer students?
  • How can colleges and universities build a community for transfer students so they can connect and share their experiences?

The stealth transfer pathway has strong potential to broaden access to bachelor’s and graduate degrees for low-income students, students of color, and other students from underrepresented populations. As stealth transfer continues to rise nationwide, it begs the question: What can your institution do to get more students like me started on a pathway to success in college during high school?

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