Who are you calling a swirler? 4 transfer populations to know

December 13, 2013
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Transfer and Articulation

As student’s recipes for completion become broader and more varied, transfer patterns are becoming more unpredictable. Transfer students “swirl” for a variety of reasons. To best help these students—who are often at a greater risk of not completing—enrollment professionals need to understand swirlers’ unique needs, motivations and challenges.

4 common categories

In their SEM quarterly article “Enabling Student Swirl: Understanding the Data and Best Practices for Supporting Transfer Students,” authors Alicia Moore, AACRAO Senior Consultant; Bruce Clemetsen and Lee Furbeck review transfer student characteristics and suggest best practices for improving success of transfer students. According to the article, the ideas of the “swirling” student was coined by Alexander McCormick, who defined these four enrollment patterns:

  1. Trial and Supplemental Enrollers. “Trial” enrollers take a few courses to explore the possibility of transferring, while “supplemental” enrollers accelerate their progress by taking courses during break periods.
  2. Consolidated and Special Program Enrollers. These students intentionally select courses at a variety of institutions (alternately or simultaneously) with the intention of applying all the credits towards a degree program at a specific institution.
  3. Serial Transfers. These students don’t find a “fit” and move from institution to institution for reasons ranging from poor grades, financial constraints, no clear goals or direction, family pressure, or a lack of understanding how to navigate higher education.
  4. Non-Degree Students. Many students—including lifelong learners—take courses for personal or professional benefits unrelated to a degree programs.

Each of these populations requires targeted services which may or may not be suitable for other populations. Good data can help institutions characterize their swirlers and respond appropriately.

“Institutions should know their transfer student data—both in terms of those who transfer in and transfer out,” says Moore, dean of student and enrollment services for Central Oregon Community College (COCC), and AACRAO Senior Consultant. This includes the sheer numbers, as well as demographic trends, academic/major trends, and completion rates. In addition, both strategic planning and enrollment services on campus can develop practices to help support swirling students.

Need Moore Assistance?

 As an AACRAO consultant, Moore notes that one size does not fit all when it comes to SEM planning. It is not uncommon for institutions to seek additional resources or receive external assistance. For more information about how your institution can support transfer students or how AACRAO Consulting can assist you, please contact us at (202) 355-1056.


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