As many enrollment officials are well aware, transfer students often face lukewarm reception on four-year campuses. They sometimes struggle to get answers to basic enrollment questions and are too frequently the last in line for course registration. These unfortunate realities signal a lingering misconception that transfer students are somehow less desirable than students who originate their educational journeys at four-year institutions.
Our research indicates, however, that four-year schools should actively recruit and embrace transfer students—the great wealth of them. Four million community college students that intend to transfer to four-year institutions fall out of the transfer pipeline each year. This number is particularly troubling in light of recent, pervasive institutional struggles to meet enrollment and net tuition revenue goals.
Fortunately, we have found that enrollment managers can increase campus enthusiasm for serving transfer students by communicating their contributions on four-year campuses.
Differentiated undergraduate enrollments
The population growth that once fueled enrollment is gone for the foreseeable future. The number of high school graduates dropped between 2010 and 2014, increasing competition for prospective undergraduate enrollments. Although growth rates have since rebounded, they will proceed at a slower rate. Institutions must look to non-traditional student segments to differentiate enrollment sources and meet enrollment goals.
Community Colleges: A sizable source of undergraduate prospects
As shown above, 12.4 million undergraduate students are enrolled at community colleges; of these, nearly six million indicate intent to transfer to a four-year college or university—more than double the size of prospective first-time, full-time students looking to enroll at four-year institutions.
Struggling to engage transfer students? EAB's Transfer Collaborative Services can help.
Bolstered tuition revenues
A combination of increasingly cost-conscious consumers, demographic shifts, and declines in public funding make meeting tuition revenue targets both more difficult and more important than ever before. As a result, many institutions are struggling to maintain the tuition revenue growth rates required for financial sustainability.
Many universities mistakenly perceive community college transfer students as disproportionately low-income and in need of greater financial support. But a comparison of two- and four-year entering cohorts reveals that transfer students have:
- Stable family incomes: Community college transfer students are primarily middle income, with 21 percent falling within the highest income quartile.
- Outsized revenue potential: Transfer students tend to yield higher tuition revenue per capita and are often less price-sensitive than first-time, full-time students given the money saved by first enrolling at a community college.
Increased campus diversity
Four-year institutions have long-held commitments to diversity and access, but demographic trends only intensify four-year access concerns: the fastest-growing student segments are most likely to enroll in a community college. African American and Hispanic students, for example, are more likely to attend a two-year institution than other racial and ethnic groups. Universities may need to increase their investments in community college transfer to achieve equal access to a four-year education for all student segments.
African American and Hispanic students more likely to attend a community college
Race and ethnic percentages at two- and four-year institutions, 2013
Supported student success
Administrators across higher education have been calling student success a "top priority" for years, but pressures to improve success are growing. Community college transfer students, especially those with associate's degrees, have already demonstrated persistence. As illustrated below, a transfer student is more likely to graduate than a peer who started at the four-year institution. High transfer completion rates ensure both a steady tuition stream as well as continued access to government funding in an increasingly performance-based environment.
Six-year graduation rates by class and sector, 2000-2010
Transfer students from community colleges have already begun their college experience and, for most, any remedial work has been completed at the two-year institution. Investments by four-year institutions in the preparation and pathing of community college students to a four-year degree will only further improve their likelihood to succeed.
To gain competitive advantage as “transfer-friendly,” four-year institutions must promulgate awareness across university communities that transfer students are valuable—even vital—to the future of their schools: Transfer students enrich campus life with a more diverse and persistent student population that can also bolster enrollment and net tuition revenue metrics.