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academic performance, natives, transfers, gpas, retention, graduation probability, gateway courses


In the Fall quarter of 2009, Western Washington University enrolled about 900 transfer students, one-third of the incoming freshmen class that quarter. More transfers were later admitted in the winter and spring quarters. Given the large numbers of transfer students attending Western and the likelihood of increased reliance upon transfers in the future, it is important to understand what, if any, performance differences exist between transfer and native students. This report compares academic success of natives and transfers using two measures: grades earned after achieving 90 credits and earning a Western degree. In order to make as precise comparisons as possible, this paper pools transfers and native (non-running start) students over a 7-year period (Fall, 2002 through Fall, 2009). To make transfers and natives as comparable as possible, excluded are all natives who fail to earn 90 credits and all transfers who arrive at Western with less than 90 credits. The remaining 23,951 observations of students are at roughly the same place in their academic careers; both groups need to earn about 90 credits to graduate and both should begin to be focusing on their major and upper division coursework. Basic descriptive statistics suggest that natives hold a significant advantage over transfers in their probability of graduating. Of the 11,784 native students who achieved 90 credits at Western, 64.6% eventually graduated while 51.6% of transfer students who came to Western with 90 or more credits graduated. On average, native students also earn higher GPAs than transfers. In courses taken after their 90th credit, natives average GPAs of 3.13 while transfers who come to Western with 90 credits average a GPA of 3.02. However, if one restricts the sample to students who attempt 30 credits at Western (after earning their 90th), native and transfer GPAs are statistically identical (3.15 v. 3.14). What appears to be happening over those first 30 credits is that transfers perform significantly worse than natives and many transfers dropout. Those that remain perform as well as natives. The differences in overall GPA also occur in selected “gateway” courses. Fourteen courses were chosen by Institutional Research as being courses which are required for large numbers of students to enter into one or many majors. In six of these fourteen courses natives hold a statistical edge in GPA relative to transfers. In the other eight, transfers and natives are statistically indistinguishable. While both measures of academic success suggest a native-transfer difference in GPAs, one must take care when making these types of comparisons. As a group, transfers differ significantly from natives in ways other than academic performance. Transfers to Western are 50% more likely to be first generation college students than natives. Transfers are older, more likely to be from disadvantaged racial groups, are less sure of their field of study, and are interested in different academic fields than natives who completed 90 or more Western credits. Given these differences, this paper explores if academic success is driven by a true native-transfer difference or if transfers underperform relative to natives because they have different backgrounds (for instance, they are more likely to come from environments that undervalues higher education). After controlling for these observables using various statistical methods, there is no evidence to suggest that transfers and natives differ in their conditional performance in either the fourteen gateway courses or in their overall Western GPA. Said another way, despite natives averaging higher GPAs and performing better in select gateway courses, these differences are explained by the fact that transfers are more likely to be first generation (among other categories) and, after accounting for these initial differences, transfers and natives average similar GPAs. Despite the similarity in native and transfers average GPAs, this does not mean that the distribution of GPAs is the same across both groups. This paper provides evidence that past academic performance is positively correlated with GPAs earned. However, the relationship between past performance and Western GPA differs between natives and transfers. Specifically, natives earning a high GPA on their first 90 credits average a significantly higher GPA on their subsequent 90 credits than does a transfer student who earned the same high initial GPA at their prior institution. Interestingly, students transferring to Western with a low GPA earn higher Western GPAs than natives earning the same initial low GPA. A few hypotheses strike me as plausible and, in order to save space, I suggest only one here: strong natives may more quickly identify their field of study and, because of their interest in this field, earn higher grades than similarly strong transfer students. Even though average GPAs are no different between natives and transfers, a large difference in the likelihood of graduating exists between natives and transfers even after controlling for observables like first generation status. One might expect that this occurs because a new transfer student, unused to the rigors of Western and its attendant stresses, would be likely to dropout shortly after arriving at Western. Yet, even after excluding transfers who failed to attempt 30 credits at Western (their 120th higher education credit), the probability of a native student graduating is 9.9% higher than that of a transfer. This native advantage remains even after controlling for a student’s background, prior academic performance, and field of study. Not only are natives more likely to graduate than transfers, they are likely to do so faster. After controlling for observables, natives are 23.4% more likely to graduate within 2.5 years of earning their 90th credit than are transfer students. A number of factors may contribute this including the ability to gain direction during a native’s early years on campus, greater difficulty encountered among transfer students when obtaining necessary courses to declare a major, and a higher propensity among transfer students to dropout of the university after receiving poor grades early after obtaining their 90th credit. In addition to comparing native and transfer academic performance, the data used in this paper provides the opportunity to compare transfer students by their originating institution. Among community college students, there are large differences in performance upon arrival at Western, as measured both by GPA and likelihood to graduate. For instance, North Seattle Community College students average a 3.24 Western GPA while Bellingham Tech students average a 2.53. Half of Spokane Community College students graduate from Western while over 82% of Lower Columbia Community College students do. However, after controlling for observables, there are few community colleges that produce students who perform better or worse than others upon arriving at Western. Nor are there differences between 2-year public community college students and students who transfer from 4-year public or private schools. The one group of students to consistently underperform at Western are those who arrive from 2-year private schools. Yet, even these students are primarily products of one institution: the Northwest Indian College. Distinguishing between the success of students from this particular college and their peers from other 2-year private schools is beyond the scope of this work.




Digital object produced by Office of Survey Research, Western Washington University, and made available by University Archives, Heritage Resources, Western Libraries, Western Washington University.

Subjects - Topical (LCSH)

College students--Washington (State)--Bellingham--Evaluation

Title of Series

Technical and research reports (Western Washington University. Office of Survey Research) ; 2010-02






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