The transfer tide


This fall, many colleges and universities celebrated record-breaking incoming classes. We saw the posts and stats all over social media. While we celebrated good numbers for new first-year students, transfer enrollment quietly continued to decline, with fewer community college students looking to transfer, and still other college students dropping out completely. 

This trend, initiated by the pandemic, is likely to reverse, when the growing number of students with some college credit consider finishing their degree. How will your institution respond? With a thoughtful, comprehensive transfer strategy, you can position your college or university to win big when the transfer tide turns.

When your enrollment department asks you for a transfer strategy, ask more questions.

Transfer students are a unique, complex, and dynamic group of students that requires a nuanced strategy. They are not a monolithic segment. Consider, for example, a 19-year-old community college student, a veteran returning from service, and a 25-year-old working professional who has decided to finish a degree. Each will have different goals, needs, interests, and backgrounds. To come up with an effective strategy, start with some research and discovery to find out who is currently transferring to your institution and who else you can serve well.

What are they seeking?

Some transfer students are like adult learners, needing flexible schedules, different class modalities, and the option to live off campus. Finding a way to juggle school with work and family is critically important to them. Other transfers are looking for a more conventional college experience: living on campus, joining clubs, participating in athletics. 

Where are they now?

Some students transfer from other four-year universities. But many are coming from a two-year institution or community college. This has become increasingly common as ambitious, qualified students realize they can knock out general education credits at a lower cost, then transfer and finish a four-year university degree with much less debt. And then there’s a smaller portion of students coming from the workplace, who put their degrees on pause due to pandemic-related challenges.

What’s driving them to transfer?

There are significant subgroups of transfer students, driven by what they want to experience or what they want to study. Some students are transferring to gain entry to a competitive major or program, like nursing. Others are veterans looking to benefit from the GI Bill. And a growing number of student-athletes are joining the transfer population, since the NCAA now allows them to participate at their new school immediately, rather than sitting out a year.

Give it to them straight: will their credits transfer?

Almost all transfer segments have the same factor at the top of their list: How many of my hard-earned credits will transfer?

For many two-year college students, this issue makes the state university system an easy choice. Credit transfer is often guaranteed, and the arrangement sometimes includes automatic admission. Community college counselors are well-versed on the state system’s offerings and requirements, and provide the necessary guidance. The pathway is clear, and that’s an advantage.

So if you’re at a private college, you have to work harder to show community college students that they have a place at your school and their credits will transfer. Don’t wait for the students to come to you and ask. Make this information clear and accessible on your website. If your courses have unique names, or you have specific graduation requirements, spell out what that means for a transfer student directly. Typically, transfer students do most of their research before applying. If your website isn’t clear, you could lose them before you ever know their names.

They’re raising their hands. You just might not see them.

Your admissions department is likely partnering with community college counselors, veterans organizations, and honor societies to find transfer students. They may even be reaching out to admitted students from prior cycles through email or SMS campaigns. Those tactics are a great start. You can boost these efforts by building awareness through media campaigns. Using digital tactics, you can start talking to students about their specific goals and interests.

When transfer students are doing their research, are they getting a good sense of who you are? Beyond the credit transfer issue, transfer students also want to know: Will I fit in? Will I be supported? Providing good answers first requires you to present a clear and compelling brand that helps transfer students see themselves on your campus, gaining the benefits you offer. 

Be ready when the tide turns.

Understanding transfer students can help you better tailor your institution’s messaging to support their wants and needs. In the end, these students, like any students, want to be sure they’re joining a community that understands and supports them. More than anything, they need to know they’re more than an afterthought to you. By better understanding them and their needs, you can help your admissions department recruit and retain them more successfully, and better support them in their educational journeys.