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Sandra Avalos, Kelly Briggs, and Mechelle Martinez, Kansas State University

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Today’s college students are engaging in a variety of enrollment patterns.  At Kansas State University (K-State), the Center for Student and Professional Services (CSPS) noticed a significant number of students transferring hours into K-State’s College of Education from other institutions.  Because of this, the CSPS academic advising team started to look at data in an attempt to determine specific enrollment patterns.  Several questions guided the search: How many students are transferring credits?  From how many institutions?  Of the credits they bring with them, how many are applied to program requirements?  What classes are most often transferred?  From which institutions are students most frequently transferring credits?

Sample Student Enrollment Patterns

There are many overlapping terms used to describe the different enrollment patterns identified by CSPS.  The terms and definitions used in this study were first introduced by De Los Santos and Wright (1990) and then expanded by McCormick (2003).

A transfer student is a student who has 24 or more accumulated credit hours when that student leaves his or her home institution to graduate from a different institution.  Swirling refers to a pattern in which a student will take credits at two or more institutions without leaving their home institution.  Swirling can take several forms.  For example, double-dipping (also known as concurrent enrollment) occurs when a student is enrolled at two or more institutions during the same semester.  Supplemental enrollment is when students enroll at another institution for a term or semester to accelerate progress in their program at their home institution.  Serial transfer is when students transfer several times on their way to a final destination. The following examples illustrate how students exemplify these different patterns.

Student A is a traditional college student from Louisburg, Kansas, whose parent(s) also attended K-State. She started at K-State in Fall 2009 and graduated in Fall 2013.  While enrolled at K-State, she took six credit hours from Fort Scott Community College in Spring 2009, six hours from Johnson County Community College in Summer 2012 and three hours from Highland Community College in Fall 2012. She shows a classic swirling pattern of enrollment.

Student B is a first-generation, transfer college student from St. George, Kansas.  He started at K-State in Fall 2012 and graduated in Fall 2015.  He transferred 53 credit hours from Washburn University, accumulated from Fall 2010 to Spring 2012.  He took six hours from Highland Community College (three in Fall 2008 and three in Summer 2011) and three hours from Baron County Community College in Summer 2013.  He swirled at both home institutions.

Student C is a non-traditional, first-generation, serial transfer college student from Toledo, Ohio.  She started at K-State in Fall 2013 and graduated in Spring 2015.  She transferred 38 hours from Owens Community College from Fall 2007 to Spring 2009, 24 hours from Gulf Coast Community College from Spring 2010–Fall 2010, and 18 hours from Barton County Community College from Spring 2013 to Summer 2013.


Of the 1,437 students enrolled in the COE in Fall 2013, 1,180, or 82.1%, had transferred hours from one or more institutions.  Of these, 14.9% had transferred more than 24 hours from one institution, 14.4% had transferred over 24 hours from two institutions, 8.5% transferred over 24 hours from three institutions, and 2.1% transferred over 24 hours from four institutions.  Another 42.5% transferred fewer than 24 hours from one institution, 14.1% transferred fewer than 24 hours from two institutions, 3.2% transferred fewer than 24 hours from three institutions, while 0.08% transferred fewer than 24 hours from four institutions.

Freshmen in Fall 2013 overwhelmingly transferred fewer than 24 credit hours from either one (79.1%) or two (10.4%) institutions.  On average, they brought 13.57 credits hours to the COE when they enrolled for their first semester of classes, 12.57 (92.63%) of which counted towards their degree program. Transfer students in Fall 2013 typically transferred more than 24 credit hours, also usually from either one (30%) or two (42%) institutions.  On average, transfer students brought 48.24 credit hours into the COE, 31.99 (66.31%) of which counted towards their degree program.

Freshmen most often transferred general education courses that apply to a lot of different programs.   Expository Writing 1 (36.7%) and Expository Writing 2 (27.7%), College Algebra (31.9%), and Public Speaking (27.1%) with them when they first started at K-State.  Other common freshman transfer courses included U.S. Government (15.4%), U.S. History 1 (11.7%) and U.S. History 2 (14.4%), and Psychology (12.8%).  Like their freshman counterparts, transfer students tended to bring Expository Writing 1 (88%) and Expository Writing 2 (76.1%), Public Speaking (77.2%), Psychology (68%%), and College Algebra (65.1%) with them to K-State.  These were followed by Fine Arts Appreciation (55.4%), Sociology (50%), Literature (47.8%), Biology, (43.5%), and other sciences with a lab (41.3%).  In the College of Education, many programs are highly prescriptive.  As a result, transfer students lose a greater percentage of courses entering the College of Education.


There are several issues that arise from the increase in these enrollment patterns.  Institutional transfer credit policies may restrict the number of credits students can transfer and when the credits can be transferred.  The Higher Education Act uses antiquated policies for calculating completion rates and distributing financial aid, which may result in institutions pressuring students to take courses simply to complete degrees rather than supporting transfers.  In addition, financial aid policies include limits on consortium agreements and satisfactory academic progress requirements, which are intended to prevent students from accumulating excess hours (American Council on Education, 2013).  Advisors need to ask themselves how they can support their students as they negotiate these complex and restrictive regulations.

In addition, a rising number of institutions are offering classes online, which dramatically increases accessibility for students.  Students now have more options, which encourages them to look for the best deal.  This can lead to a lack of brand loyalty (Seligo, 2012), resulting in students who do not feel connected to their institution.  Without that sense of connection, students may lack persistence if they encounter obstacles.  Advisors are essential figures in helping students connect to their campus and in encouraging perseverance through challenges.  In addition to serving as a personal connection point with the institution, these university faculty and staff are typically knowledgeable about extracurricular activities and other ways students can get involved on campus.

Finally, if students piece together a program of study, they are not truly participating in a coherent, meaningful education path.  This means that even though students may have taken the same courses by title, they may not have had the same focus (McCormick, 2003; Smith Bailey, 2003).  If advisors have a list of courses from other institutions that they know not only fulfill requirements, but also contain information relevant to furthering the degree-granting institution’s program objectives, they can help students choose the best courses to maintain the integrity of their own institution’s program.  Without this guidance, students are likely to choose where they want to take courses based on what seems easiest.

At an institutional level, it is important to create a culture of transfer.  To most effectively support today’s college students, it is important to create policies that are student-centered, not institution-centered (Clemetsen, Furbeck, & Moore, 2013).  One area in which this is particularly important is improving transfer processes to simplify movement of credits.  This can be done by supporting transfer and reverse-transfer agreements.  These partnerships are becoming more common.  Some even allow students to take classes at any partner institution, while institutions share information about mutual students.  To fully reap the benefits of these partnerships, however, it is important to invest in sufficient numbers of academic advisors.

First and foremost, advisors recognize that students with different enrollment patterns may have different goals and need different types of support.  Knowledge of these enrollment patterns can influence conversations with students to help create both short- and long-term plans.  Dual- or pre-transfer advising can be one key strategy to help students ease their transfer process if they plan to transfer to another institution or even a different program at the same institution.  One way to achieve this goal is to encourage better communication and collaboration between partner institutions (Smith Bailey, 2003).  Those relationships are also beneficial when students need to find classes at other institutions to help them progress through their own program.

Future Research Considerations

  • Which students are swirling? Are there demographic implications?
  • Where do these students transfer from? How many institutions do they attend? How many hours do they take? What kind of credits are they taking? How often do they take courses from other institutions? When are they most likely to swirl?
  • Does swirling have implications for graduation rates and time to graduation?
  • How do military-connected students’ enrollment patterns differ from swirlers and other transfer students?
  • Do swirling students and traditional transfer students encounter the same barriers to graduation? Do they have the same advising needs?

Sandra Avalos ([email protected])
Kelly Briggs ([email protected])
Mechelle Martinez ([email protected])
Academic Advisors
Center for Student and Professional Services
College of Education
Kansas State University


American Council on Education (2013). Comments on Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Retrieved from http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Pages/Comments-on-Reauthorizing-the-Higher-Education-Act.aspx

Clemetsen, B., Furbeck, L., & Moore, A. (2013). Enabling student swirl: Understanding the data and best practices for supporting transfer students. Strategic Enrollment Mgmt Quarterly, 1, 153–165. doi:10.1002/sem3.20018

De Los Santos Jr., A. & Sutton, F. (2012). Swirling students: Articulation between a major community college district and a state-supported research university. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 36(12), 967-981.

McCormick, A. C. (2003). Swirling and double-dipping: New patterns of student attendance and their implications for higher education. New Directions for Higher Education, 121, 13-24.

Seligo, J. (2012, March 8). The student swirl. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/next/2012/03/08/the-student-swirl/

Smith Bailey, D. (2003, December). 'Swirling' changes to the traditional student path. Monitor on Psychology, 34(11). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec03/swirling.aspx

Cite this article using APA style as: Avalos, S., Briggs, K., & Martinez, M. (2017, September). The winding road: How today’s student consumes higher education. Academic Advising Today, 40(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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