Where have all the college transfer students gone?

Jennifer Wick

Vice President

September 21, 2017

This post is drawn from a more detailed article in University Business.

In today’s environment, it has become increasingly difficult for some traditional, four-year institutions to meet enrollment goals for first-year students. Hence, enrolling transfer students brings a number of advantages to campuses. College transfer students typically generate higher average net tuition revenue than freshmen, do not create large pressures on housing, and enroll in upper-level courses that typically have capacity. These benefits should motivate campuses to shift the balance of new student enrollment to include a larger portion of transfers.

However, changes in the higher education marketplace are now making it more challenging to enroll transfer students, too. The combined effects of the declining number of high school graduates and the recent decline in enrollments at two-year public institutions has made the college transfer student market increasingly competitive. National enrollments are down, 2.6 percent lower in fall 2016 than in 2015, at the largest source of transfer students for four-year public and private institutions, two-year public institutions.

Enrollment outcomes for college transfer students behind goal

As can be seen below and in our 2016 Recruitment Conversion and Yield Rates benchmark survey, four-year institutions struggled to achieve transfer enrollment targets.

In addition to the reduced available pool of college transfer students, transfer students are harder to track and communicate with than traditional students. According to RNL research, more than 50 percent of transfer applications to private institutions are “stealth,” meaning students were not part of the institutions’ inquiry pool prior to submitting their applications. Admissions offices at four-year institutions cannot, of course, actively recruit transfer students at other four-year institutions. Paired with the reality that transfer students from two-year publics may not transfer directly following degree attainment, waiting two years or more, it is difficult for institutions to engage in active marketing campaigns to generate interest from potential transfer students, having to rely more on “boots on the ground” recruiting and websites.

6 effective recruitment/yield strategies for college transfer students

Given the challenges institutions face in meeting college transfer student enrollment goals, specific strategies geared toward this population should be considered. Below are examples of best practices; this is not intended as a comprehensive list but, if your institution is not engaged in many of these practices, it may signal that a review of the enrollment plan is in order.

  • Dedicate admissions staffing for transfers. A reasonable target for many institutions would be for 15 to 20 percent of new students to be transfers; admissions office resources should be aligned in similar proportion. As discussed above, transfers have different, often more targeted, needs in the enrollment process, calling for specialized training for the recruitment staff.
  • Reflect the “transfer voice” in direct marketing communications, on your website, and in your social media. Again, because transfers are typically looking for specialized information, and have more familiarity with the enrollment process than first-time students, materials that “speak to transfers” will be more effective than the more general freshman-targeted messages.
  • Offer timely credit evaluations for transfer students (ideally “on-the-spot,” but at least within 24 hours) at any stage, not just for admits. In addition, before officially beginning the transfer application process, students appreciate an online, searchable database of course equivalencies.
  • Offer visit opportunities geared for transfers including events where students can apply, be admitted, receive a financial aid award, and register all in one day. Students who have been through the process before appreciate the efficiency offered by being able to complete the administrative tasks all at once. Transfer students also appreciate orientation events geared for them specifically, addressing their needs for housing, advising, social connections, etc.
  • Ground your transfer financial aid awarding strategy in solid data analysis. Although transfers are typically less price sensitive than freshmen, it is still important for institutions to use their historical data effectively to understand what aid strategies for transfers will produce the desired results (e.g., maximize enrollments; increase net tuition revenue; meet diversity goals; etc.).
  • Cultivate active articulation agreements, including faculty partnerships. Over time, the most impactful strategies for building a strong transfer pipeline include building relationships with “feeder institutions” at all levels of the institution, but especially faculty-to-faculty collaboration.

Finally, we often see institutions that execute strong transfer recruitment strategies, yet the campus does not have a transfer-friendly campus culture for enrolled students. When transfers find it difficult to assimilate academically and socially, recruitment efforts will be seen as lacking authenticity, undermining those recruitment and yield efforts as word of mouth travels. As it gets tougher out there, institutions will need to make sure they are fully committed to enrolling transfer students.

Want to discuss your transfer student goals and strategies with an RNL expert?

Contact us for a personal consultation at 800.876.1117 or email to arrange an appointment. Together, we’ll discuss the issues and find new ways to enhance your strategy to meet transfer student enrollment goals for 2018 and beyond.

College transfer student strategy consultation

About the Author

Jen Wick provides consulting on a wide range of enrollment management topics from pricing and financial aid strategies, retention initiatives, and recruitment planning to operations in student service offices. Jen previously served at Clarkson University,...

Read more about Jennifer's experience and expertise

Reach Jennifer by e-mail at jen.wick@ruffalonl.com.

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