Posted by: Gregory Linton | 03/08/2012

A Glossary of Terms about Student Mobility

Research continues to show the increasing incidence of student mobility in higher education. The most recent report on the phenomenon was just released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center with the title Transfer & mobility: A national view of pre-degree student movement in postsecondary institutions. Other terms used to describe this phenomenon are “student swirl” and “student flow.” These terms refer to students taking classes from an institution other than the one that grants them their degree.

Although the facts about student mobility have been publicized thoroughly in the past and now in this latest report, academic policymakers and administrators often fail to take it into consideration. Instead, they generally design programs and policies based on the model of the traditional student who enters a four-year college immediately after finishing high school, lives on campus, and graduates from the same college without ever taking a course elsewhere (Borden, 2004).

C. Adelman (2006) has shown, however, that only “a third of traditional-age students who started in a four-year college earned a bachelor’s degree from the same school in the ‘traditional’ four-year period” (p. xxiv). Such students are a minority among the undergraduate population, and their numbers are decreasing. A minority of students experience a linear progression through their education; however, this linear progression is the default assumption of most academic policies and measures of effectiveness. Consequently, policies, programs, and assessment measures based on this model are flawed.

In future posts, I am going to discuss what the research shows us about how common it is for students to receive credits from more than one institution. And then I will discuss the overlooked impact of this on academic areas such as curriculum design, assessment of student learning, program completion rates, transfer of credit policies, and first-year assimilation programs. But first, I want to lay the groundwork by defining terms related to student mobility, relying mainly on the NSC report mentioned above. These terms will illustrate the variety of ways in which this phenomenon manifests itself.

Vertical or upward  or forward transfer: student movement from a community college to a four-year institution.

Reverse transfer: student movement from a four-year institution to a two-year institution.

Lateral transfer: student movement from a four-year institution to another four-year institution (or from a two-year to a two-year).

Student swirl: students who leave their original institution, take classes at another institution, and then return to their original institution.

Concurrent enrollment: students taking courses at more than one institution at the same time.

Serial transfers: students taking courses successively from a number of institutions.

These terms show that student mobility takes a variety of forms. In the next post, I will examine the statistics about the prevalence of student mobility


Adelman, C. (2006, February). The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved May 29, 2006, from

Borden, V. M. H. (2004, March/April). Accommodating student swirl: When traditional students are no longer the tradition. Change, 36(2), 10-17.

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