Enrollment Blog

5 tactics to accelerate transfer student growth

By Scott Booth

At your welcome events and orientation meetings, do you see the faces of the community college transfer students you want to enroll?

For too many enrollment leaders, the answer is no.

This is especially troubling because I’ve had multiple conversations with enrollment leaders expressing concerns about the financial impact of declining first-time, first-year student enrollments. Their worry is well-founded as the number of high school graduates is shrinking and competition for new students requires that schools recruit new populations of students. Prominent and promising among them are transfer students from community colleges. This pool of prospects is almost twice as large as that of first-time, first-year students.

Yet about four million community college students intend to transfer to four-year institutions, but don’t. This means that most four-year institutions are missing out on millions of potential transfer students.

Despite their growing need to enroll transfer students, too many four-year colleges have unwittingly created—and ignored—a series of roadblocks for successful transfers. Over long periods of time, barriers to transfer student success can persist in outdated or ill-fitting enrollment strategies, or pop up as a result of shifts in institutional policies. Entropy is a common culprit; I recently worked with an enrollment team that said they hadn’t changed their approach to transfer students for more than a decade.

But increasing challenges in this enrollment era demand the energy and courage to chart a new path. To help enrollment leaders move beyond common roadblocks and clear transfer students’ path to their institution, we suggest that institutions implement the following five tactics.

1. Dedicate transfer admissions staff, structures, and resources

The primary challenges confronting enrollment officers are to convince community college students that earning a bachelor’s degree is an important next step in their educational journey and to make the process easy for them. Currently 75% of potential transfer students report that they are unsure where they want to transfer and over 50% find the four-year admissions process challenging and confusing. This data points to the reality that many four-year institutions allocate most of their funds to first-time, first-year student enrollment—leaving transfer students as afterthoughts.

But these students should be top-of-mind. During my nine years at Franklin University as an enrollment leader, we adopted what we called a “transfer-first mentality”, asking ourselves “How will this impact the transfer student?” prior to moving forward on any initiative.

To cultivate this mindset, institutions must intentionally become transfer-friendly by dedicating the staff, structures, and resources necessary to serve the unique needs of transfer students. By becoming more transfer-friendly, institutions are able to reach unengaged transfer prospects early and with increased frequency, keep students on track for transfer through early prospect advising and relationship management, and guide prospects to enrollment by providing timely support throughout the admissions process.

2. Cultivate formal community college partnerships

Many four-year institutions have only minimal contact with their local community colleges—often due to (sometimes unsubstantiated) faculty concerns about the academic quality and preparation of community college students. Those concerns can be alleviated through a proactive, comprehensive partnership program that can enable two- and four- year college leaders to establish trusting relationships, set mutually beneficial goals, create major-specific academic pathways, and build regular faculty and staff collaboration in support of transfer student success.

During my tenure at Franklin University, I ran the 230-member Community College Alliance and found resources invested in cultivating school partnerships to be more beneficial than other marketing or admissions efforts. To cost effectively grow transfer student enrollment, schools should develop strategic plans for each primary community college partner to guide recruitment, relationship-building, and strategic engagement.

3. Develop and maintain up-to-date articulation agreements and academic pathways

According to the Community College Research Center, only 14% of students who start out at a community college transfer to a four-year institution and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. One reason for this lagging percentage is course credit loss. Many community college students discover that they have lost time and money earning course credits that are not valid at their four-year college, and these losses can fuel student attrition.

To mitigate and prevent this credit loss, institutions should work collaboratively with their community college partners to formalize and manage major-specific articulation agreements that give transfer prospects a clear understanding of course sequences and requirements. Community college advisors must also be knowledgeable about your academic programs to advance your institution’s transfer-friendly academic plan.

Most institutions looking to strengthen transfer enrollment will need to establish a formal working group to define what courses the school will accept from a community college, identify gaps in popular programs, and engage faculty to review and strengthen curricular initiatives. Together with community college partners, transfer-friendly institutions can formalize their programs and empower prospective transfer students.

4. Clearly communicate course equivalencies and timely credit evaluation

In my experience, there are three basic questions that every transfer prospect wants answered: how their credits will transfer, how long it will take to complete their degree, and how much will it cost to finish. And they expect answers quickly. Four-year institutions that are slow to assess course equivalency and credit evaluation risk losing their prospective transfer students to another institution—or worse, cause students to abandon their transfer aspirations altogether.

These delays can often result from institutions’ choice to employ a one-size-fits-all approach to student recruitment. Schools that differentiate their enrollment services for transfer students from those for first-time, first-year students are often more efficient. By streamlining much of the time-consuming back-and-forth between admissions staff, registrar, and faculty, many institutions have reduced the time needed for credit assessments from several weeks to a just few days.

Recent advances in technology, like EAB's prospective student-facing portal, can also fill a critical gap in institutions’ transfer recruitment by enabling transfer prospects to quickly and easily get answers to their unique questions about credit transfer, speed, and cost, helping them to remain engaged in the admissions process.

5. Support the unique needs of transfers with accessible, informative online content

Like first-time, first-year students, transfer prospects are web savvy and develop perceptions about an institution as they research potential four-year schools. Schools competing for transfer students need accurate, easy-to-access, online information tailored to reflect the specific needs of community college students. Merely subsuming content for transfer students in content designed for first-time, first-year prospects can frustrate community college students by requiring them to hunt for information. Ensure you're clearly highlighting your unique admissions process, transfer partnerships, upcoming recruitment and event schedules, and links to transfer-specific materials and resources.

Transfer-friendly institutions must understand the unique needs of their local community college students and commit sustained resources to their web presence to differentiate their institution, build prospective student interest, and increase student enrollments. Visitors to these websites must feel that it provides accurate and timely content, is easy to navigate, and clearly explains what a prospective transfer student needs to do to transfer.

By using these five tactics, colleges will strengthen their transfer student pipelines and lay the foundation for long-term transfer student enrollment and tuition revenue growth.

Looking to increase transfer enrollment? Learn how we can help.

In an era of declining enrollment, transfer students offer a bright opportunity to increase tuition revenue and graduation rates. Through a combination of consulting and marketing services, EAB's Transfer Collaborative can help you assess your institutional readiness to recruit this population and ensure their student success.

Learn More


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