Near-Term Strategies to Combat Transfer Decline


Near-Term Strategies to Combat Transfer Decline

As Fall 2023 classes shape up, many enrollment leaders once again face lagging transfer rates. Transfer enrollments have declined by 13.5% over the past four years for a variety of reasons, including readiness concerns, post-pandemic financial woes, and a renewed skepticism of higher education. More high school students are now opting out of college and instead choosing to enter the workforce directly.

Knowing how to turn the tide can feel impossible—not to mention that increasing competition in the transfer recruitment space continues to crowd an already crowded market.

But things aren’t all doom and gloom.

While institutional planning is critical to long-term transfer recruitment success (e.g., developing new transfer pathways and community college partnerships), there are a number of in-house, quick-win strategies that can help you clean up your transfer student journey—we’ve detailed four below. These strategies will make your institution more appealing to potential transfer students and help you grow and stabilize transfer enrollment.

Strategy 1: Provide clear information about transfer credit articulation

Among EAB research and elsewhere, the number one question transfer students have during their search process is, how will my credits transfer and count toward my degree? If your institution is not able to answer this question quickly and easily while the student is still shopping for options, you are likely to lose that student to another institution.

Understandably, transfer students want to make the most of their investments and need clarity on how their courses will apply to a bachelor’s degree during this exploratory phase. In many cases, students are looking for a transfer destination that will maximize their credits and shorten their time to a degree, reducing overall costs and getting them into the labor market quicker.

“I’m so confused. Can someone tell me if I should try and apply to a different school this fall? I’m currently enrolled at a CC (technical college). I’m enrolled in their transfer program for psychology. I have completed one semester and only recently started looking into transfer opportunities at the schools I want to transfer to. Turns out the credits from my school don’t seem to be that great."

Students increasingly expect 24/7 service and self service options. This is especially true among transfer students since 51% of this population is considered stealth. Transactional questions—like those related to transfer credit articulation—can and should be resolved primarily through self-service resources, like your college website, chatbots, and additional apps. Beyond credit information, having online resources for transfer students to explore majors and careers can help you further reduce your team’s outreach workload. Through EAB’s Transfer Portal, our partners get access to a self service hub for transfer students and data for their teams to optimize outreach year-round.

Strategy 2: Clean up your college’s digital presence

Transfer students usually express interest in your institution by visiting your college website, so it’s imperative that the user experience is student-centered, mobile-responsive, and easy to navigate. In a recent EAB survey, 62% of students indicated that they would abandon a college website that is not user-friendly, while 87% of students said a well-designed website improves their opinion of a college. Your website is your most important recruitment tool, so focus on cleaning it up first.

"I quickly discovered that it’s confusing and difficult to understand what courses count for different schools, especially when attending multiple community colleges. It’s hard to find accurate transfer information. And while individual colleges have requirements specific to major, general education and number of units, information about each is found in different places."

Here’s where you can focus your efforts for maximum impact:

  • Rewrite copy on key transfer pages to outline information in an easy-to-read format
  • Complete an SEO audit and prioritize improvements to your transfer webpage
  • Include information for transfer students on enrollment-focused social media
  • Ensure transfer pages are responsive on mobile for quick access to information on the go
  • Add transfer student resources on high-traffic pages and virtual campus tours.

Strategy 3: Conduct data discovery to understand gaps in your transfer process

After optimizing self-service options and digital presence, teams often tell us, “we’ve thrown the kitchen sink at this problem and are not sure what’s working or what to do differently—help!” If this sounds familiar, we recommend kickstarting a deep dive into your transfer data to better understand the root cause. A data-informed approach can help you resolve these gaps quickly. You may discover trends that are more specific to your institution or region, which can help inform your strategy.

How to complete a data discovery:

The data you find will help you answer, “where do our transfer students fall out of the funnel?” Begin with five years of historical data to capture the pre-pandemic, pandemic, and post-pandemic landscape. Lay out each stage in your transfer student lifecycle and apply yield and melt percentages to each stage. Analyzing this data will likely lead to more investigation into why melt occurred across specific stages. To go further, try applying feeder institution and major-specific data to see where a majority of your transfer students originated from and note specific trends by programs. 

It’s likely that your student-facing staff (Admissions, Credit Evaluators, Advisors) already have significant evidence about barriers in their own processes or common anecdotes reported by students. Use these as starting points for discussions about pain points in your transfer enrollment process. Try asking follow-up questions like these:

  • Are there any existing transfer working groups that collect this information?
  • Have there been any recent policy or process audits that look at transfer?
  • Does Admissions conduct an intake or deferral survey of transfer students?
  • Have there been any recent transfer student focus groups or feedback sessions?

If the answer to the last question is no, you can solicit more information using a multi-pronged approach (a combination of surveys, focus groups, and discussions). You can also leverage EAB’s Transfer Maturity Curve or reach out to an EAB expert for help getting started.


Secret shopping exercises give enrollment teams important insights about how to improve the enrollment process. For this process, start by scanning your transfer website to answer frequently asked questions (cost, credit, completion), submitting an application, and completing the onboarding process. For best results, create a realistic transfer student persona and go as far as possible to complete each step without alerting any group that the exercise is underway. Make notes about how the experience, noting staff follow up, communications, timing, opportunities, and any challenges you encountered. This data will help your team create a streamlined student onboarding experience.

Your community college partners are vital teammates in your efforts to recruit more transfer students. Meet with them regularly and use these meetings to discuss your shared mission to serve the community and what areas they believe you could improve. Discuss program requirements and desired outcomes across the region, also considering how these policies impact transfer students. These types of sessions are often best facilitated by a neutral entity who is positioned to solicit candid feedback. If a neutral representative is hard to find, consider sending a survey as an alternative.

Strategy 4: Build a sense of belonging among transfers

A welcoming environment can make college more “sticky” for those with doubts about pursuing higher education. Transfer students who feel a genuine connection to the college community are more likely to persist through challenges, as they have a support network to lean on (Transfer Students: Retention and Persistence; p. 5). If you have the capacity to invest in this area, here are some tactics that you can user to cultivate a culture of belonging for transfers:

"I spent my first two years at a community college and my junior year was fully online. I’m a senior now and just feel left “out.” While I had a fantastic time at the community college, I wish I got that “college experience” everyone talks about. Everyone seems to have made tons of friends, people know each other in classes etc. I don’t really have any crazy memories from the past 3 years."

  • Tailored orientation programs can address the unique needs of transfer students, including guidance on navigating the social and academic aspects of college life.
  • Establishing mentorship programs that pair transfer students with current students or alumni promotes a support network that fosters personal and academic growth.
  • Hosting transfer student events on campus can remind attendees that they’re part of a larger community of transfer students.

Need more guidance on growing transfer enrollment?

Request a demo of EAB’s Transfer Portal. Our transfer experts can walk you through our self-service technology and help you assess institutional readiness. Email us at [email protected].

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