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Is Your School Doing Enough to Attract Transfers?

Episode 124

October 18, 2022 37 minutes


Kent State University’s Ted McKown joins EAB’s Allison Akalonu and Matt Sheldon to explore better ways to engage, recruit, and support incoming transfer students. The three urge schools to invest in transfer advisors, website improvements, and auxiliary services designed to help transfer students build engagement with staff and other students even before they arrive on your campus.

Finally, they identify ways to collaborate more effectively with influencers at other institutions in your area who can have an outsized impact on steering right-fit students to your school.



0:00:13.0 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. We’re fortunate today to have a leader from the Kent State Admissions team on the program to talk about why student transfers have become so critical to overall enrolments, and why simply establishing articulation agreements with other two and four-year schools is really just the first step.

0:00:32.3 S1: Our guests offer advice on ways to make your school more transfer-friendly, and they offer tips on keeping those students engaged and on path once they arrive. Give these folks to listen and enjoy.


0:00:51.0 Allison Akalonu: Hello, and welcome to a very special episode of our EAB Office Hours. We are joining you during National Transfer Student Week. My name is Allison Akalonu and I am a director at EAB. I spend a lot of my time looking at enrollment challenges and outcomes at both two-year and four-year institutions all across the country, but specifically digging into transfer pathways and pipelines.

0:01:25.6 AA: I am pleased implied to be joined by two of my colleagues here on the line to have a conversation about transfer in honor of this week. I am joined by Matt Sheldon, our Associate Director of Enrollment here at EAB, and also Ted McKown, Senior Associate Director of Transfer Enrollment at Kent State University. Welcome guys. How you doing?

0:01:52.1 Ted McKown: Good, how are you doing?

0:01:55.9 AA: Doing good, doing good. Loving the fall weather, it’s finally cooled down here and in the greater DMV. Would love to kick us off Matt with you and hear a little bit more about what you are seeing out in the market today, and when we think about transfer, why you think schools should care more about this demographic and population more than maybe they have in the past?

0:02:25.6 Matt Sheldon: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks Allison, for having Ted and myself, this is a super exciting way to spend transfer week. I think whenever we do these conversations about transfer and what’s going on, we just really wanna acknowledge first and foremost it’s a challenging market out there. This is a tough time for transfer.

0:02:44.8 MS: In terms of national data, when we look at really that 10,000 ft perspective, what we are seeing is that transfer is down around 14% since the start of the pandemic. Transfer in of itself is not removed from the macro factors. So we’re down as a country nationally about 5% when it comes to overall first time freshman enrollment, and so that has really put a big emphasis on how do we make up that 5% first time freshman enrollment?

0:03:17.9 MS: And so what you’re really seeing is these two factors combining to make this marketplace really challenging. So first and foremost, we’re seeing that decline in transfer, but then also because people have really lost out on their first time freshman population, they’re now turning to transfer to make up for that, and so that is making the marketplace even more competitive.

0:03:40.8 MS: And then, I feel like a Debbie Downer to start off this call, but really what is going on is that all of these factors are compounded by as we look out into the future, first-time enrollment at community colleges is down about 21%. So this is why I’m really excited to have Ted on the line with us today, because as we in our roles at EAB looking at the national numbers and the demographic cliff that is coming, it’s great to have somebody who’s in the field who hopefully can really share some optimism and talk about the amazing work that he and his team are doing.

0:04:19.4 MS: So Ted, I kinda wanted to pass it to you and then just again, thank you for joining us, but before we dive in, I think people in transfer world know Allison and I pretty well at this point, but I think they would love to know a little bit more about you. Can you tell us a little about your role and how did you get involved in transfer?

0:04:38.4 TM: Well sure, thanks Matt. I actually was… I got involved in admissions when I was a graduate student, and I had a GA in, GA-ship in Admissions when I was in grad school and that led to a career in admissions. I’ve been in admissions for 30 years. 2022 is my 30th anniversary in admissions.

0:05:06.6 TM: I have done just about everything in admissions, international, adult, first year, and transfer as well. So I’ve done a lot of different populations through that kind of work history, but I think how I got involved in transfer was there was a need to kind of begin to recruit transfer students.

0:05:36.0 TM: We had actually at Kent State, we kinda had a lull in transfer recruitment about 10 years ago, and so the university turned to me and asked if I would kind of take on that charge to begin to develop planning to recruit transfers and then actually implement the plan. And so that’s how I got involved about 10 years in transfer enrollment.

0:06:06.0 AA: Ted, just even building on that, for the folks listening that might not know much about Kent State, could you elaborate more just in terms of your student population size, the types of transfer students you see, and even the folks behind the scenes that actually support incoming transfer students above and beyond yourself?

0:06:29.6 TM: Yeah. So Kent State is a large public situated in Northeast Ohio. You said the greater DMV. I’m gonna call us the greater CLE, short for Cleveland. We have about 36,000 students. We’re a regional campus model, so there’s the Kent campus, which is our largest campus, and then we have regional campuses all throughout Northeast Ohio.

0:07:02.5 TM: What we see in Northeast Ohio is that transfer students are very regionally bound, so they stay very tight within the Northeast Ohio region. So while we’re the third largest public four-year university in the state, we enroll about 1200 transfers a year, and there’s quite a bit of competition, there are four four-year publics in just Northeast Ohio alone, and there’s five two-year institutions in Northeast Ohio alone. So nine public institutions just in one quadrant of Ohio.

0:07:51.8 AA: I’m sure that… I mean you just mentioned that increased competition is certainly something that you all are struggling with or grapple with, but what are some of the other issues that keep you up at night when you’re thinking about supporting your transfer enrollment goals or even just student success efforts relative to transfer?

0:08:13.3 TM: Well, I think anyone in admissions thinks about the looming demographic cliff, so that’s something that’s keeping us all up at night, how are we going to deal with this. The literature is out there that the demographic cliff has been delayed, but it’s coming. It’s coming in 2025 now. And so that’s something that’s a real challenge moving forward.

0:08:42.8 TM: Most transfer students are… An institution like Kent State, we’re going to draw traditional age transfer students, and so those students are kind of in that demographic cliff, just like the first-year students are. That certainly keeps me up at night. Also there are just the factors that influencers on students aren’t convinced anymore that higher education is worthwhile.

0:09:17.0 TM: It’s very expensive, it’s something that, especially with a little bit of a stronger job market, parents are thinking, “You know, maybe you should go get a job instead of go to college.” I just had an interesting conversation with a parent this last week that, he was talking to me about his son and he was telling me, “You know, I’m just not sure that higher ed is where it’s at any more, and I think he should just enter the job market.”

0:09:54.3 TM: So it’s a challenge just to sell Kent State when you think about the competitors that are out there within our region, but it’s also a challenge because we have to sell higher education, let alone our own institution, and I think that’s something that’s keeping us all up at night.

0:10:18.0 MS: Ted it’s interesting you mentioned the demographic cliff and being one of the definitely up at night issues. I don’t know why, my stress point comes in when I’m like walking around the grocery store, and I was thinking about it just on Sunday as I was doing my shopping, I was like, the students who are part of the class, the first class that are going to be part of this “demographic cliff” are actually in high school right now, depending on what year you’re looking at, either they’re the freshmen or sophomores, depending on which data you subscribe to, whether it be 2025 or 2026. And that definitely is something when you mentioned that, it kinda sparked a thought in my head.

0:10:56.8 MS: But you mentioned this really, this competitive market, I think in our experience a little bit, some of that has to do with the pandemic. Can you elaborate? Are there any specific changes you’ve seen over the last three to five years within the transfer market that kind of contribute to some of those up-at-night issues that you have?

0:11:21.1 TM: Well, I’m not sure exactly what is happening at the two-year level, but we all know that the two-year enrollment is on decline, Matt. We can see it, we can see the numbers being reported out, the drastic declines. You had mentioned, I think you said a 14% decline in community college enrollment. I would say here in Northeast Ohio, it’s actually a little stronger decline than that, so that’s something that is interesting.

0:12:02.6 TM: And why is that happening? Why our students not going to two years? Or is it more of a double cohort thing to where high school students have been attending community college as a part of their high school requirements? So those students don’t necessarily have a strong need for two-year education, they’ve already done that and they’re ready to move on.

0:12:31.9 TM: So less… More students graduating quicker from community colleges, so less students that can actually enroll in community colleges, so the two-years are hurt, but it also hurts the enrollment at the four-years because we’re only enrolling those students for a shorter period of time.

0:12:52.9 TM: They’re earning a four-year degree through the means of these different pathways that are set up for them, whether it’s like in the state of Ohio, we have college credit plus or CCP, and so students while they’re in high school can actually attend college as a part of their high school requirements, and then satisfy degree requirements with those credits. So I think that that’s something that is a significant change.

0:13:31.1 TM: I also think that COVID had something to do with this too. And you said the last three to five years. We saw declines at community colleges began when COVID hit, and I don’t know if it really has something to do with COVID or not, but it sure does seem like it does. And I think students are more engaged in a virtual sense now. It’s almost like the amenities that they used to be interested in, the brick-and-mortar amenities that colleges and universities offer aren’t as relevant to the current today’s student.

0:14:16.2 TM: They’re more interested in career outcomes, they’re more interested in online options. Even services being virtual and things like that. So we have really seen a drastic change in that over the last three to five years, and I think that the community colleges have seen that as well, not just the four-years.

0:14:47.8 TM: I think the two-year institutions, the community colleges and technical schools have have seen that demand for, “I want an online program. I wanna be able to earn a degree online and I want you to tell me what I’m going to do with this degree when I’m done. And I want to know how long it will take me to get to that point.” So…

0:15:12.7 MS: Sorry, I wanna dive in here really quickly ’cause I think you mentioned something really fascinating in some of those changes. So I would love to dive in a little bit deeper with you as we’re talking to folks out there who are listening on how they can improve their own transfer programs.

0:15:30.5 MS: So we talk a lot about… We think of transfer students as anyone with previous college credit. So is there anything in particular that your office is doing to recruit those dual enrollment students or the students who are getting through more quickly when it comes to the community college? When it comes to moving through community college more quickly because of the dual enrollment work that they’re doing in high school? How are you all tackling that?

0:15:54.8 TM: Yeah, so I think that everyone does degree pathways nowadays, and so that’s something that’s become very commonplace for four-years to approach two-years and develop two plus two pathways or there’s a lot of variations on that, we’re doing that at Kent State. But I think a key with that is some auxiliary services that are wrapped around the degree pathways, such as building relationships with students, with transfer advisors.

0:16:28.5 TM: So that’s something that we’ve really tried to focus on is one-to-one outreach, building relationships, so actually proactively going after students and using the degree pathway as that conduit to get to the student. And so that’s been really key for us. Although students like to be stealthy too, and we know that.

0:16:56.3 AA: Particularly transfer, right Ted?


0:17:00.0 TM: Particularly transfer, Allison, they really like to be stealthy. So one thing that we’ve tried to do is give them the information so that they don’t have to talk to us. So we have enhanced our website, and actually Allison was someone that helped us enhance our website, but we’re also using this tool that we call the “flash credit estimator”, that allows students to go in, plug their credits in and apply them to a specific degree program at Kent State, without ever talking to anyone at Kent State.

0:17:41.8 TM: We also want them to save that information within the estimator, and because they can go back, they can add to it, they can add additional credits, they can add AP or IB exams or CLEP credit, they can add all kinds of different types of college credit, but if they save it, I then have their information and I can begin to interact with them and build that relationship one-to-one with an individual. That’s been a real key difference of something that we do.

0:18:21.9 TM: It’s one thing… In the last three years, we have developed over 100 degree pathways. If you would go to Kent State’s website, you would see all of these degree pathways that we’ve developed, and a lot of schools develop degree pathways and you know, that’s great. It’s like a trophy on your website, “Oh, look at all of these pathways.”


0:18:47.8 TM: “We have more degree pathways than anyone,” you can actually promote that. It’s meaningless if students don’t know about it. If you can’t proactively tell your story about how students can use their credits at two-year institutions, or the high school credits that they’re earning that’s college level and apply it to a degree, and then, “What’s that outcome after I earn your degree?” If you can’t tell that story to a student, if you can’t get to the student, the degree pathway is meaningless.

0:19:23.3 TM: So that’s something that, Matt, that we’re doing that’s a little bit different I think, than maybe some other schools. We’re trying to build relationships with stealth fighters, these students who like to swoop in under the radar and get their information and swoop back out. You don’t even know they’re there. So we’re trying to grab those stealthy students and build relationships with them.

0:19:56.3 MS: Yeah, I think that we hear from folks on the line that’s all I… The two big things, is you capture stealth shoppers and build relationships with folks. For those online, we’ll put our transfer resource center in the show notes, and we actually have this really great research speaking to exactly what Ted’s talking about, why it’s so important to build partnerships. There’s great research on how to build partnerships with folks and why it’s so important.

0:20:23.2 AA: I have a couple of reactions, Ted, to a few things that you noted that I think would be important to call out for folks. The one… Just the last point you’re making around degree pathways and the idea of articulation agreements, even in having them on your website, AACRAO does recommend, AACRAO has best practices for transfer and credit articulation.

0:20:45.3 AA: One of the key things they do recommend is at least getting them on on your website and checking the box, I think that’s a good first step, but what we see is that, a couple of things. Students, one, don’t always follow the pathway. Life happens, I think this is a very common occurrence, particularly with community college students where they stop out, they re-enter, they might go to a different four-year than Kent State, go back to the two-year and swirl and/or transition.

0:21:22.9 AA: So even in the world of transfer, there’s a lot of language shift from traditional transfer to more thinking about these students as transitionary students that are actually not fitting the mould of two plus two or three plus two or one plus three, usually it’s some different hybrid in between. I think for folks to take that away is a good point, that doing the course equivalency mappings is a good step, but it’s typically not going to be enough to be competitive.

0:21:58.2 AA: So I think your point of having as much of inclusive and specific unique engagement per student is what is setting you apart in this increasing competitive environment, is a good takeaway. I like to push schools to think about that at scale, because one of the challenges we hear time and time again is that budgets are tightening, and staff resources and capacity are really becoming a struggle.

0:22:32.7 AA: I’m curious, Ted, what your reaction is around any kind of staff or capacity issues that you all have seen or encountered in other either self-service resources or ways that you’ve been able to scale your efforts, particularly given the volume of students that you see on an annual basis?

0:22:54.0 TM: Well, and we do see a lot of students on an annual basis, and when you think about… So we enroll 1200 new transfers a year at Kent State, we took in a lot more applications than that, so we’re really just within the application cycle, we are interacting with a lot of individuals. So I think having a lot of communication automated using a CRM, really building out your CRM as a tool in automating those communications.

0:23:42.4 TM: I think really where we hang our hat at Kent State in the transfer enrollment world is that we do a couple of things well, and one is high-touch marketing. We send a lot of communications, and when we send those communications, we are trying to tell our story and be very transactional as well.

0:24:14.9 TM: And so a lot of those high-touch communications are automated and they’re automated all the way through the admissions funnel, so whether you’re in… Whether we’re prospecting, we’ve got hand-raisers that are telling us they’re interested in Kent State, they’ve applied, they have been admitted and they’re ready for those next steps to their first enrollment, all the way until they’re sitting in a seat at Kent State, whether it’s online or actually in a physical classroom, that we rely on that technology to really drive our communications.

0:24:56.1 TM: There still room for one-to-one marketing too, and so I’m a big one-to-one marketing guy, and we have a whole one-to-one outreach plan that is really semester by semester, but it’s a bi-weekly plan that we review every other week and we look at our numbers and we determine what’s the best use of our time.

0:25:26.0 TM: So we’ve got all of these prospects in the top of the funnel, then we’ve got all of these applications in kind of the mid-funnel, and we have admitted students that we have to follow up with. Based on where we’re at in the cycle for the semester we’re working on, which we’re usually working on a couple of semesters at a time, what’s the best use of our resources? They’re limited, how do we pivot right now and have the most impact? What is our data?

0:25:58.9 TM: So we make data-driven decisions, and what’s the data telling us, and what would be the best one-to-one activities that we could do to make a difference? And what are the mediums, so if we’re going to send these communications, what are those mediums that we wanna use? Do we wanna text students? Do we want to email? Do we wanna pick up the phone and call students? You know what, what do we wanna do right now to really make an impact on the student? And a lot of it just depends.

0:26:32.7 TM: One of the greatest things that one of my marketing professors said when I was an undergraduate student, he said, “The question to your… Or the answer to your marketing question is, it depends.”


0:26:51.5 TM: It depends on a lot of factors, right Matt?

0:26:53.5 MS: Yeah.

0:26:55.2 TM: So it depends on the market, right? What segment of the market are you working on? What exactly is happening within that market? What are those different factors that you’re looking at, what’s the data telling you? And then making informed decisions. So we do a lot of that work, Allison, because our resources are limited, so that we can get the best bang out of the resources that we do have, to try and make an impact on those prospects or applications that we’re working with. That was kind of long-winded, sorry.

0:27:32.8 AA: No, no. It’s interesting, ’cause I think technology is such a critical component of really nurturing today’s generation of students who are entering college, and you can only reach the level of volume that you have and scale by using technology and self-service resources. The other kind of thing I would add to some of the points you were making is around website optimization is so important, and really spending as much time as you can doing a lot of user pathing, click-throughs and auditing of the user experience for transfer students or students who transfer credit is critical.

0:28:14.5 AA: ‘Cause we definitely know and have experience that oftentimes our websites are built for first-time full-time freshmen, and the information that transfer students need relative to what we call the three C’s, a little kitschy, [chuckle] “cost, credit and completion”, can be challenging to find and ultimately understand in a stealth manner.

0:28:37.1 AA: I’m curious, so much about transfer is hugely cross-functional. You’re dealing with the points you made around transfer, marketing, CRM, we’ve mentioned credit and technology. I’m curious how Kent state has approached the cross-functional nature of behind the scenes working with a transfer student?

0:29:03.6 TM: Yes. Alignment is really important, alignment is key. So we try to align with as many partners as we can internally at Kent State, but also inter-institutionally. So I’m gonna make up a term, it might already be out there, I don’t know, but we talk a lot about collaboration, but really inter-institutional collaboration is really key.

0:29:32.7 TM: And when you think about the degree pathway work that’s done, but also the key influencers that you’re working with at two-year institutions, I can’t go to the local four-year schools and walk around and recruit their students to Kent State. That’s, we don’t do something like that.

0:29:55.3 TM: But I can go into a two-year institution and I can meet with those two-year students and talk to them about, “When you’re done with your work here at this institution, consider Kent State, and this would be how you would do that.” But key influencers on those students are just as important, and I would say we actually do more work with key influencers, and that work is harder work than actually working with the student.

0:30:30.2 TM: So transfer center specialists at two-year schools, advisors or counselors, VA offices are critical. There’s just so many people that work with students that have the ability to influence those community college students, that we work really hard at setting ourself up and aligning with them, and doing that a lot.

0:31:04.5 TM: So that when they’re talking to a student and the student says, “Oh, I’m interested in X, Y, Z program.” “You know, Kent State has Y program. Have you thought about Kent State?” So Kent State is kinda top of-mind awareness for that key influencer, and they can help us in that recruitment of the student.

0:31:26.3 MS: So one thing I wanted to follow up just… Ted, is there, as we kinda think about takeaways that the folks who are listening to us can really implement, any best practices you have for reaching out to those influencers? You mentioned your credit estimation tool, are you putting that in the hands of students? How are you… How are you influencing them to make them really an extension of your office?

0:31:50.2 TM: We have done a lot of hard work to build relationships with those individuals that work at community colleges, at two-year technical schools, mostly in the State of Ohio. But once again, transfer students are gonna be regionally bound, so we kind of look at our region and for our region it’s kind of Northeast Ohio, Northwest Pennsylvania, so we’re kind of working in that realm.

0:32:22.0 TM: But we do a lot of different things, Matt. We actually buy them food, we’ll do a luncheon and have them come and we’ll eat with them, we’ll give a presentation. We do a lot of work to try to get to faculty members too. “Can I come into your class? If I can’t come into your class, could you provide information to those students about this specific pathway that deals with the program that they’re in, related to the class that they’re taking?”

0:32:58.2 TM: We’ve even done work to try to create a first-year course that specific for Kent State, so if a student raises their hand, they’re interested in Kent State, we’ve actually done some work with some institutions to have a specific section of those students in their first year course that’s set up in the institution. So there’s a lot of different ways that you can get to those key influencers and really bring them on board. So those are some of the ways that we’ve looked at that.

0:33:50.5 AA: Ted, we are at time. Always short when you’re having fun. I’m curious to kinda round us out for our special podcast during National Transfer Student Week, what’s one thing you would have people do to either honour or celebrate this week on campus?

0:34:20.7 TM: I think that as I think about National Transfer Week, so we know with transfer students, there’s a lot of transitional issues, so if you’re a four-year institution, really take some time. If you’re not involved with transfer students, maybe look at some ways that you can be involved. Establish a program.

0:34:51.8 TM: I know in admissions sometimes we will even do a transfer reception during National Transfer Week, just as a check-in for our students who have already transferred to us, and we have a very close relationship with the folks in Student Success and Transfer Orientation, and so we work very closely with them and we’ll have a reception for them and just kind of check in with them, “How are you doing? How’s the transition going to the four-year school?”

0:35:32.2 TM: It’s different, there’s a lot less hand-holding I think at the four-year school. You don’t know anyone. A lot of those relationships are already established. So you’re stepping into a new world, you might be feeling isolated. So it’s important for people to know that, that’s what transfers are going through.

0:35:53.1 TM: They might be going through sticker shock, going from a two-year school to a four-year school. They might be really, have in their face that they were not prepared academically and now they’re struggling in the classroom. So just to be able to bring some transfer students together and check in with them and see how they’re doing, I think would be a really great thing to do for National Transfer Student Week.

0:36:25.0 MS: Relationships, it’s the most important part about transfer. I just loved hearing that over and over again today, Ted.

0:36:34.4 TM: Relationships are definitely key, so it’s something that should be the focus of your recruitment.

0:36:44.1 AA: Well I think that’s a great place to leave us this afternoon. I appreciate both of your time, Matt and Ted on today’s Office Hours. Have a great Transfer Week.


0:36:54.7 S1: Thanks for listening. Please join us next week when we explore emerging approaches to dealing with students experiencing mental health crises on campus. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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