When traditional students are no longer the tradition

Accommodating student swirl: when traditional students are no longer the tradition

Victor M.H. Borden

For how long does something need to be part of common experience before it is considered a tradition? Although part-time students are often called “nontraditional,” since at least the early 1970s the majority of undergraduate degree recipients have accumulated degree credits at more than one institution and over a time-span longer than the two or four years required for the degree. In fact, although we think of them as a recent phenomenon, the percentage of postsecondary students enrolled part-time in four-year colleges and universities has not changed much since 1975 (it went from 45.4 percent in 1975 to 44.4 percent in 2000).

In his 1999 seminal study, “Answers in the Toolbox,” Cliff Adelman reported that while there was a notable increase in the number of students attending more than one postsecondary institution in the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of these multi-institution matriculaters already constituted half of a large national sample of 1972 high school graduates.

Yet as Adelman and others have pointed out, many studies of college student progress and performance (from the likes of Feldman, Newcomb, Astin, Tinto, Chickering, Pascarella, and Terenzini) are based on the prototype of an 18-year-old high school graduate matriculating the following fall semester and attending a residential four-year college or university full-time and continuously.


The traditional “linear-matriculation” image of the college student still influences policy formulation and educational practice at all levels, despite the reality that the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds, not to mention older students, do not experience a college education in a linear fashion. Indeed, almost two-thirds (63.8) of 18- to 24-year-olds are not even enrolled in college. Of those who graduate from high school, three out of five now go directly on to college (up from 50 percent in the mid-1970s). But only a slight majority (55 percent) of those enrolled in degree-granting institutions start at four-year institutions.

Recently, the major leakage in the educational pipeline has served as a stimulus to the K(or P)-16 governance and accountability movement. The core of this concern is captured in data gathered by Peter Ewell, Dennis Jones, and Patrick Kelly (2003) as part of a state-by-state comparison. They found that only 18 of every 100 students entering the ninth grade will complete a bachelor’s degree within 10 years of their first year in high school. More specifically, their data reveal that only 67 of the 100 students will complete high school within four years, only 38 will enroll in college the next fall semester, and only 18 will graduate within six years of college entry.


These data don’t take into account students who move out of state or into private schools, however, and they do not at all capture college student swirl. The term “student swirl” was coined by Alfredo de los Santos and Irene Wright in 1990, along with the term “double-dipping” (concurrent enrollment at two institutions), to characterize the back-and-forth, multi-institutional attendance pattern common among students attending community colleges.

But student swirl does not only originate in the two-year college sector. Alexander McCormick’s 1997 analysis of a national sample of students who started college in 1989-1990 revealed, as expected, a high transfer rate among students who started at community colleges (43 percent within four years).

But more notably, it showed a high transfer rate (28 percent) for students starting at four-year institutions. Adelman’s 1999 report, based on data from students who entered college much earlier and who were tracked for a much longer period (20 years), demonstrated an even greater complexity and long history of multi-institutional attendance patterns.

As McCormick, Adelman, and others were noting the high incidence of transfer from the institution of entry, Barbara Townsend and colleagues turned their attention to the return trip, devoting an entire volume of New Directions for Community Colleges to the phenomenon of “reverse transfer” (transfer from four-year to two-year institutions). More recently, an issue of New Directions for Higher Education on “Changing Student Attendance Patterns: Challenges for Policy and Practice” included a chapter by Alexander McCormick that differentiated among types of swirl. To summarize, he described eight multi-institution attendance patterns:

1) trial enrollment (experimenting with the possibility of transfer by taking a few courses)

2) special program enrollment (taking advantage of unique courses and programs offered at other institutions)

3) supplemental enrollment (accelerating progress by taking additional courses–during the summer, for example–at another institution)

4) rebounding enrollment (alternating enrollment at two institutions)

5) concurrent enrollment (that is, double-dipping)

6) consolidated enrollment (taking a collection of courses at various institutions to complete one institution’s degree program)

7) serial transfer (one or more intermediate transfers on the way to a final destination)

8) independent enrollment (taking courses unrelated to the degree program, for personal or professional interest, at other institutions)


In addition to the inter-institutional variety, many students engage in enrollment behavior that could be described as intra-institutional swirl. Major migration, or the movement of students among degree programs, is a longstanding college student tradition that often results in lengthened time-to-degree. Travel abroad, co-op education, and exchange programs are other examples of interruptions in the linear sequence. These latter programs are of particular interest here because many colleges and universities have been distinguished by developing programs and practices that promote and accommodate this type of swirl.

Many college and university faculty and administrators are surprised when they discover the extent of mobility nationally, regionally, and at their own campuses. As an institutional researcher at a large, public, urban commuter campus, one of the most attention-provoking statistics I found (about eight years ago) was that two-thirds of our undergraduate degree recipients started their postsecondary careers at another college or university. This statistic was especially startling in a state that, at the time, did not have a community college system.

Even today, this statistic is revealed at committee meetings as if it were late-breaking news. Staff from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education garnered a lot of attention several years ago when they reported that “reverse” transfer from four-year to two-year institutions was more frequent than the more traditional “forward” transfer from the two-year to the four-year sector.


For a campus researcher, swirl creates a litany of questions. How should I classify students who start with a full year of college credit gained prior to attaining their high school diploma? Are they ever new first-year students? What about the courses students transfer into our institution that were taken concurrently during the academic year or during the summer at other institutions? How about students who alternate attendance at our campus and another campus, depending on their employment location? Are they stop-outs? What about students in co-op programs who take night courses at other institutions and then transfer back enough credits to complete the degree without ever re-enrolling at our campus? Can you graduate from our university without being retained from semester to semester?

Many faculty, administrators, policymakers, and oversight bodies are not comfortable with the reality of postsecondary student flow. It does not square well with the assumptions we use to plan our curricula and academic support programs. As more faculty buy into the process of planning, implementing, assessing, and improving undergraduate programs, the reality of student flow becomes even more troublesome.

How can we create innovative and coherent undergraduate programs when students enter and leave these programs in a seemingly haphazard fashion? Should we concentrate our efforts on the large numbers of students who move through our campuses in a more traditional way, and do everything we can to encourage more and more students to approach our programs in a linear and sequential fashion? Or do we need to reconsider how we design, deliver, and evaluate our programs to accommodate swirl, double-dipping, and the ever-growing variety of attendance patterns?

To put in high relief the differences between the linear movement of students through an institution and swirl, Table 1 contrasts the programs, policies, and practices typical of institutions that mainly deal with linear matriculation with those that accommodate swirling students. The dichotomous categories in the table are presented for illustrative purposes.

Most colleges and universities are likely to have varying combinations of these approaches. For example, a given institution may do exemplary work in assimilating students into the technology infrastructure, regardless of when and how they enter, but may only track first-time, full-time freshmen in their studies of student progression.

At my own institution, which has moved toward the development of an increasingly coherent undergraduate program, we are constantly vexed by the question of how to accommodate the attendance patterns we have recognized (begrudgingly) for years. Some of our most successful efforts have been directed toward improving student retention rates, which one might think would help minimize multi-institutional attendance. But they have not, for two major reasons. First, some of the improvement resulted from working closely with our new community college partner. We refer more prospective students at entry to the two-year campus, with guarantees of full course articulation when they transfer to our institution upon successful completion of core courses in English and math. Second, our improving reputation has attracted more transfer students from within and outside the state, with the largest percentage increase coming from international transfers.



We are not alone in promoting swirl. Community colleges offer cost-effective ways for states and localities to improve access to postsecondary education, especially among traditionally underserved populations. With the ongoing development of a statewide community college system, Indiana is following a path that most other states traveled long ago. The consequence is not only to improve access but to promote swirl by raising students’ educational aspirations.

As Jane Wellman pointed out recently, this makes college student transfer one of the most important current issues for state policy. Many states are smoothing the paths between institutions through the development of comprehensive course-articulation agreements. California’s ASSIST system (www.assist.org), Arizona’s Course Applicability System (aztransfer.org/cas/students/index.html), and Florida’s Statewide Course Numbering System (scns.fldoe.org/scns/public/pb_index.jsp) are examples of a growing number of Web-based systems that allow students to determine how they can obtain a degree through attendance at multiple institutions.

Another policy that has the potential to increase swirl is “mission differentiation,” by which a state minimizes overlap in program offerings across its four-year sector. Since many baccalaureate students enter college with uncertain plans for their field of study, more may have to transfer to pursue specific fields as missions become more sharply differentiated in a state.

The growing number of programs and courses offered through distance learning further increases the likelihood of swirl. Students can take advantage of the offerings of hundreds of institutions around the world without leaving their homes or dormitory rooms. Western Governors University, which provides students access to distance course offerings from dozens of colleges and universities, allows students to swirl from the comfort of home.

When so many of our efforts to improve cost effectiveness, expand access, leverage technology, and enhance convenience for students are likely to promote swirl, it is unrealistic for faculty and administrators to continue to ignore its implications for curriculum development and delivery. There are still a number of colleges and universities, especially those that are relatively small, private, and at least moderately selective, where the traditional linear progress toward the degree is likely to continue. But for most of us, the ship has long since sailed into the whirlpool.


How, then, can we better accommodate student swirl? First, we can record it. Many states are trying to improve their tracking of students across institutions, both public and private; to document attendance patterns more accurately; and, in some cases, to provide data on how taking specific courses at one institution influences subsequent success in courses taken at another institution. Indeed, Peter Ewell, Paula Schild, and Karen Paulson, in a recent assessment of the status of state tracking systems, have argued for developing a national student tracking system.

But even more important, the effect of swirl on learning and student support needs to be addressed. On campus, arguably the most critical component of accommodating swirl is how individual academic units and faculty support students who enter into their programs mid-stream. Do they know where their students come from and at what point they are in their academic careers? Do they orient transfer students to their particular curriculum? Do they assess incoming students for prerequisite knowledge, skills, and abilities?


They also have a responsibility to students who leave to enroll in programs at other institutions. Do they send students off, regardless of when they leave, with evidence of their level of proficiency in generally accepted outcome domains?

Some inter-institutional methods of accommodating swirl are already developing through the same mechanisms that are expanding the phenomenon. For example, the burgeoning of transfer articulation agreements brings together, however reluctantly, faculty from various institutions to discuss the learning objectives and outcomes associated with the courses being “matched” across institutions.

Even universities with unique general education programs–such as Portland State University’s University Studies Program–have been able to develop ways to accommodate transfer students. Portland State’s one-semester transfer transition program provides them with a more compact version of its freshman inquiry program all new first-year students are required to complete. In addition, the university has worked with its feeder community colleges to offer a version of the freshman inquiry sequence for students who are planning to transfer.

Student movement among institutions puts pressure on us to consider more communally agreed-upon learning goals for college students. Many associations and organizations are working to develop principles, standards, and practices that bring coherence to various aspects of postsecondary education across the country and, in come cases, internationally. Some, such as the American Academy of Liberal Education’s standards and accreditation system and the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Greater Expectations initiative, focus on broad aspects of undergraduate learning.

Others–like Campus Compact, with its focus on civic education–seek to develop a consensus regarding more specific learning objectives and outcomes. Regional and specialized accreditation agencies also play an important role in establishing common standards and principles that bring coherence to higher education across a range of institutions.

More radically, student flow is leading some institutions to take more seriously the idea of competency-based credentialing. While providing students access to courses from a range of colleges and universities, for instance, Western Governors University uses competency assessments as the mechanism for bringing coherence to the program. That is, the degree is obtained through the successful completion of those assessments, and courses are offered to help students develop the specified competencies.

Demonstrating mastery across institutions is also behind the development of several electronic student portfolio systems. Working together to meet the requirements of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Metropolitan Community College are developing Administrative Growth Portfolios for education majors who start at either institution. On a larger scale, the ePort Consortium (www.eportconsortium.org) is one of several national consortia that bring together member organizations–in this instance six large public universities and eight corporate members–to develop the technological and procedural mechanisms for determining how student work completed at one university relates to the learning outcomes at all participating institutions.


In short, policies, practices, and programs that accommodate swirl do so through four primary mechanisms: student tracking research to monitor swirl, assimilation programs to engage students rapidly in campus academic and social culture, collaboration efforts to establish cross-institutional standards and outcome expectations, and competency-based assessments to determine student placement and attainment.

Probably the most difficult and crucial component of a campus’s overall success in undergraduate education reform is faculty buy-in. Though the complications of accommodating swirl raised in this article are enough to set back these reform efforts by at least a decade, efforts to accommodate swirl can lead to regional and national collaborations and conversations that have real benefits for faculty members and their institutions.

Moreover, collaborative efforts to develop and deliver coherent curricula and engage swirling students in collegiate experiences require the development of expertise in complex academic issues. By according substantive academic recognition and reward to such efforts we may well find the most expeditious path to faculty cooperation in making the college experience of “nontraditional” students as coherent and rewarding as that of their more “traditional” peers.



Mechanism Linear Matriculation Swirling

Student Tracking * First-time, full-time * Tracking within and across

retention, and institutions, monitoring

graduation rates within student progress according

institution to mode of entry,

collaborative tracking with

high school and transfer

feeders, tracking transfers

within and across state


Assimilation * Freshman orientation * Orientation and first-year

Programs for traditional programs customized for

beginners, little or various entry points

nothing for transfers (traditional first year,

* First-year experience transfer, adult, etc.)

programs geared toward * Individual academic and

toward traditional service units develop

freshmen orientation and referral

programming for new


Collaborative * Collaboration * Collaboration with

Development of primarily among faculty disciplinary peers,

Standards and within departments and regionally and nationally

Learning Outcomes secondarily with other * Participation in national

faculty at the efforts to define learning

institution (for outcomes broadly (such as

general education) liberal education) and in

specific domains (for

example civic engagement,

character development, etc.)

Competency * Left primarily to * Competencies assessed upon

Assessment individual faculty entry for credit and

within specific course. placement; proficiencies

Some development of defined across the

common assessments in curriculum (and in regional

courses (departmental and national collaborations)

exams) and programs * Course assignments

(capstone experiences) “mapped” to general


* Portfolios and other

mechanisms used to

demonstrate student


* Extra- and co-curricular

activities (within and

outside institution)

accommodated in assessments


* Adelman, C., “Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1999.

* de los Santos, A., Jr., and I. Wright, “Maricopa’s Swirling Students: Earning One-Third of Arizona State’s Bachelor’s Degrees,” Community, Technical, and Junior College Journal, Vol. 60, No. 6, 1990, pp. 32-34.

* Ewell, P.T., D.P. Jones, and P.J. Kelly, “Conceptualizing and Researching the College Student Pipeline.” Boulder, CO: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, 2003.

* Ewell, P.T., P.R. Schild, and K. Paulson, “Following the Mobile Student: Can We Develop the Capacity for a Comprehensive Database to Assess Student Progression?” Lumina Foundation for Education Research Report, Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation for Education, 2003.

* McCormick, A.C., “Transfer Behavior Among Beginning Postsecondary Students: 1989-1994,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1997.

* McCormick, A.C., “Swirling and Double-Dipping: New Patterns of Student Attendance and their Implications for Higher Education,” in J.E. King, E.L. Anderson, and M.E. Corrigan, eds, Changing Student Attendance Patterns: Challenges For Policy and Practice, New Directions for Higher Education, No. 121, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

* Townsend, B.K., Transfer Students: Trends and Issues. New Directions for Community Colleges, No. 106, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

Author’s Note: The author would like to thank Susan Kahn, director of Institutional Effectiveness at IUPUI, for her helpful comments and editorial suggestions on earlier drafts.

Victor M. H. Borden is associate vice chancellor for information management and institutional research and associate professor of psychology in the Purdue School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI), with an adjunct appointment at the Indiana University School of Education (Educational Leadership and Policy Studies). He is currently president of the Association for Institutional Research.

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