Transfer students were second-class citizens. Although they always had a place at regional public institutions, many private colleges and universities largely ignored them. Admissions offices were built to work with freshmen, and transfer students were messy. They brought credits that were viewed as inferior and that did not fit into the curriculum smoothly. They generated questions about housing. They were also often viewed as backdoor students who were either not competitive enough to gain admission as freshmen or were trying to get around paying regular tuition.
This perception of transfers gradually evolved, pushed along by state systems that needed strong community college networks to handle student volume and provide low-cost options. Since the recent financial crisis, however, the perception of transfers and their value to many colleges has shifted dramatically. Increasingly, colleges and universities see transfer students as a critical piece of their enrollment. They are becoming dependent on transfer students to make up their incoming classes and shore up their financial base. Transfer students are finding they are in a buyers’ market.
As college-age student demographics took a dip, universities looked to transfer students, particularly from community colleges, to make up the difference. Roughly 40 percent of college-going students now start at a community college, but recently community colleges have also seen a drop in enrollment. As community colleges seek ways to keep their students enrolled longer, and as private institutions add staffing and marketing dollars to shore up their classes with transfer enrollment, quality transfer students are finding themselves in high demand, and they are asking for more.
It has become clear at my institution that the lines between freshmen and transfer students are blurring rapidly. More freshmen come with college-level credits—sometimes a whole year’s worth of credits—by the time they begin college. At the same time, traditional-age college transfers are looking more like freshmen. The percentage of transfer applicants in our pool with fewer than two years of college credits continues to climb. Our transfers also act and think more like freshmen than in the past.
The overall trend for college students to remain dependent on their families for decision-making and emotional support is definitely true of many of the transfer students we are seeing. Most have not had a truly independent living situation, and their parents continue to be heavily involved. In tracking these trends, we realize that transfer students want convenience, options, and service, but in slightly different ways than freshmen do.
So how can you appeal to transfer students in a shrinking market? The answer is surprisingly simple—by giving them the kind of treatment all students want but only new students have traditionally received.
Most important to transfers is knowing which of their credits will transfer and how they will transfer. Articulation agreements are a great concept, but in practice they often create a labyrinth of special exceptions and unclear pathways for students to navigate themselves.
What students really want is someone to tell them how their credits will transfer, not which agreement they fall under. Individually evaluating prospective students’ transcripts pre-application is an extremely labor-intensive process, but if your institution can do it you will have an edge in the transfer market.
Transfer students want options when it comes to housing. In the past, we usually assumed that they preferred truly independent living, which meant off-campus housing. In a recent analysis we conducted of our transfer pool, however, nearly 45 percent of our new transfers said they would be interested in on-campus housing if we could guarantee it.
While we know that a portion of our market is the non-traditional-age student, clearly another large section is looking for a very traditional college experience. Again, even though these students have a year or more of college credit, for many this still might be the first time they are living away from home, and they are looking for a more gradual transition to total independence. Our best approach is to provide both options to the degree we can.
Believe it or not, many transfers also want support and transitional services more like those we have historically offered freshmen. In recent focus groups with transfer students on our campus, there was nearly unanimous interest in a more robust orientation program for transfers.
Despite their previous college experience, nearly three-quarters of our focus group participants indicated that it took them two or more semesters to feel they had adjusted to the differences from their former institution. We asked them all whether they would have joined a transfer student association for support and mentoring upon their arrival if we had offered one. They all responded positively.
Finally, transfers want what all students want: scholarship money. For decades, we thought of transfer scholarships primarily as the money they saved by attending less expensive institutions. Colleges spent their money on the freshmen that helped strengthen their profiles.
Now, however, colleges need those transfer students, and the perceptions of attending community college have changed. Transfer students increasingly feel entitled to similar consideration for scholarship money that is more like that of freshmen, and they are getting it.
If your institution is looking to the transfer student market to strengthen your enrollment position, keep this new transfer landscape in mind. The competition for transfer students is heating up, and to succeed in this market, you will have to learn to meet the needs of a whole new generation of customers.
Aaron Basko is assistant vice president of enrollment management at Salisbury University.