Research in Higher Education

, Volume 53, Issue 1, pp 94–121 | Cite as

Student Flow Between Community Colleges: Investigating Lateral Transfer

  • Peter Riley BahrEmail author


The traditional unidirectional (“linear”) postsecondary path from high school to a community college to a 4-year institution into the workforce represents accurately a decreasing proportion of the pathways actually taken by students through higher education. Instead, students increasingly exhibit patterns of enrollment that take them through multiple postsecondary institutions, both within levels of the higher education system (e.g., multiple community colleges, multiple 4-year institutions) and across levels (e.g., movement back and forth between community colleges and 4-year institutions). These “swirling” patterns of enrollment are widely recognized by scholars of higher education, but they remain poorly understood. In this study, I employ data that address 89,057 first-time students in the California community college system to answer a number of key questions concerning lateral transfer between community colleges, which, according to prior research, constitutes one sizeable component of student “swirl”. Building on the very limited work on this topic, I examine whether the reported high prevalence of lateral transfer holds true under a more stringent operational framework than that employed in prior work. I explore whether lateral transfer is primarily an artifact of students enrolling simultaneously in multiple community colleges, sometimes called “double-dipping”. I investigate the timing of lateral transfer from several different perspectives to determine how lateral transfer fits in students’ progress and development. Finally, I probe the relationship between students’ level of academic investment in their current community college and the risk of lateral transfer.


Swirl Transfer Lateral transfer Horizontal transfer Parallel transfer Simultaneous enrollment 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary EducationUniversity of Michigan, School of EducationAnn ArborUSA

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