Most colleges and universities have experienced some sort of enrollment contraction during the pandemic. Naturally, a lot of the concern centers around declining first-time enrollment and what can be done about it. Much less airtime is being devoted to declines in transfer student recruitment.
This is an important distinction. New students haven’t been to college yet, prompting concerns about how the college aspirations of high school seniors may be evolving. Transfers, on the other hand, have already started college and, in theory, are already sold on the value proposition. Recovering these lost enrollments may require very different strategies.
Transfer enrollment trends
Looking more closely at data from the last several years reveals some good news when it comes to transfer students. The National Student Clearinghouse estimates that incoming first-time student enrollment at four-year public institutions is down 10% since 2019, yet incoming transfer is only down 3.5%. The situation at four-year non-profit private colleges looks even better, with a 6% decline in incoming students far exceeding the approximate 1% decline in transfers. This relative strength in transfer recruitment offers four-year colleges an alternative path to securing enrollments even as the first-time student market struggles.
The situation is less rosy at two-year institutions. We tend to think of transfer as the process of moving from a two-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution, and indeed “2+2” is the most common transfer pathway. Yet fully one-third of all transfers are actually entering a two-year school, either from a four-year or another two-year. Inbound two-year transfer is down 20% since 2019, mirroring the 21% decline in first-time students at these same institutions. Many inbound two-year transfers come from other two-year institutions, and thus the overall decline in community college enrollment foretells even more trouble for two-year transfer recruitment down the road.
An unfair transfer system
The transfer system was broken before the pandemic. Transfer, especially 2+2 transfer, is meant to offer students an affordable, accessible access point to eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, the reality is far different. It’s estimated that 80% of incoming community college students intend to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, yet only 15% ever achieve this goal. They may lose 40% or more of their credits as they move to bachelor-granting institutions, driving up cost and undercutting the intended affordability of the transfer pathway.
Transfer is also seldom acknowledged as an equity issue. White and Asian students who start at community colleges are roughly twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree compared with their Black and Hispanic peers. We will not be successful in closing equity gaps unless we also address the gaps that happen in between institutions.
What can we do about it?
The ripple effects of pandemic enrollment declines will prompt many schools to put more of an emphasis on transfer student recruitment. Some of these schools, especially private four-year colleges, may begin thinking about themselves as transfer destinations for the first time.
To date, many efforts at transfer reform have focused on the space in between institutions where individual schools do not have full purview. These efforts often result in state-wide credit articulation agreements and common course number systems. These measures are good first steps, but they are not a panacea. They also do little to help students who transfer in from outside of the ecosystem, such as those coming from private institution or other state systems.
Individual institutions need to take the next steps, and there is a lot that they can do. Here are three steps you can take, sourced from our work with dozens of institutions focused on transfer and equity:
1. Map the process to understand where to focus
The first step is to analyze your transfer processes to better understand where you need to focus your efforts. If you haven’t already, bring your enrollment and student success teams together to ask the following questions:
- Where do our transfers come from? Where do they go to?
- What other schools are drawing from these same sources? Are they competitors?
- What credits do we accept or deny articulation in our most important programs? Do we have classes that students are unnecessarily repeating?
- What experience do transfer students have on their journey? How can it be better?
2. Streamline admissions for a competitive advantage
As a second step, examine at your admissions processes. Transfer admissions is often riddled with administrative steps that are unnecessarily burdensome for the student. Of note, it might take weeks for a student to hear back on which of their credits will articulate into your institution, a poor customer service experience that may turn them to other schools in the meantime. Institutions that can simplify their transfer admissions process and automate credit articulation will have a competitive advantage over those that make students jump through more hoops than necessary.
3. Work with dedicated partners to create a seamless experience for students
Finally, schools that have dedicated transfer partners should look to strengthen these relationships. Develop seamless shared degree maps with partners that students can use to navigate between programs at these schools. Ensure that students are taking the right classes by embedding advising at your feeder institution or making virtual options available. Provide full access to your campus resources (library, sporting events, rec center, etc.) for students at feeder institutions who are enrolled in shared programs, so that they see themselves as part of your community from the very beginning.
A better deal
Transfer students are an important part of our campuses, and they will only become more important as we rebuild our enrollments following the pandemic. College leaders often see transfer problems as something that happen outside of their institution, but the reality is that there are concrete things every school can do to smooth the path for more transfers. Those that do will offer these students a better deal, thereby bolstering enrollments while helping deliver on the promise of an accessible, affordable postsecondary education.