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The Invisibility of Transfer Students

“We receive transfers, we don’t recruit them.”

Even at the most transfer-friendly institutions, this is a common refrain. In fact, this insight — that transfer students may be welcomed, but rarely are recruited — was the single most common pattern that emerged in talking about transfer with a collection of more than 20 enrollment managers and chief financial officers at a wide range of four-year institutions.

Those conversations are part of a qualitative research project Sova is conducting to better understand the financial and enrollment incentives, and disincentives, around transfer at four-year colleges and universities. Time and again we have heard in our conversations that community college transfer students play an important, in some cases vital, role in the financial and enrollment health of institutions, but that most nevertheless put little money and strategy into recruiting and retaining them. While different types of four-year institutions have different incentives for serving transfer students, we were surprised to hear across conversations — even at institutions that serve large populations of transfer students — that little strategic attention is paid to actively recruiting and supporting transfer students. Exceptions exist, and better understanding the incentives at work for these outliers is important. But understanding the outliers depends first on understanding the norm. From these conversations, conducted confidentially as semistructured in-depth interviews, three dominant themes emerged, which together begin to paint a picture of the status quo.

No. 1: Transfer students reliably showed up … until now. Until recently, community college transfers were a reliable pool of new students for four-year institutions, and colleges didn’t have to work particularly hard to bring them in. This is changing as enrollment declines at community colleges — quite drastically in some regions — but this “they’ll show up” mentality still dominates at many four-year institutions, even those that serve large numbers of transfer students.

“We care about transfer students here but assume we’re going to get them. And we really have to compete to get those full-pay students and to bring up those academic metrics. If suddenly transfers decided they didn’t want to come here, then you’d see panic.”

No. 2: Transfer students don’t count when it comes to accountability. Recruitment is about far more than just bringing in a classit’s the first step in managing the entire enrollment cycle. And a good enrollment manager is recruiting with an eye on retention and graduation, not just filling seats. But for the vast majority of institutions, transfer students don’t count in official retention and graduation rates, or in performance-based funding or other state accountability frameworks. So there’s every incentive for four-year institutions to enroll community college transfers, but little incentive to recruit them actively or to prioritize packaging financial aid and scholarships for transfer students.

“Most of the accountability metrics are focused on first-years, and so [transfers] are kind of hidden. They come and go without much impact … If we were forced to live by our retention and graduation rates for transfers, then we’d change how we allocate our funds.”

No. 3: Transfer students are a hidden population when it comes to reputational incentives. At more selective institutions, enrollment managers aren’t just recruiting for FTEs, they are recruiting to bolster the class profile — average GPA, standardized test scores, diversity — and other markers of status like admission and yield rates. Transfer students are completely missing from those reputational metrics. At institutions that view their reputation and rank as just as existentially important as total enrollment, that makes transfer students a distant priority when it comes to recruiting. It should be deeply troubling to equity-minded reformers that the invisibility of transfer students increases with institutional selectivity.

There’s evidence these attitudes may be shifting as enrollment pressures intensify across the country, and as a few states look more closely at transfer outcomes. One institution we talked to made major investments in recruiting and supporting community college transfers, after it became clear its state was going to begin considering transfer outcomes for funding purposes. The institution had always been committed to the transfer mission, but suddenly the profile of transfer students and their odds of succeeding mattered much more financially.

Many other institutions reported concern about transfer enrollment now and in the longer term. Transfer enrollment at four-year institutions dropped 2.6 percent this past fall, while nontransfer enrollment essentially held steady (0.1 percent increase). And community colleges saw steep enrollment declines last fall and this spring, which doesn’t portend well for transfer enrollment in the next couple years. Some of the finance and enrollment leaders we spoke with were taking proactive measures now to shore up transfer enrollments, but many were taking a “wait and see” approach.

Beyond these key themes, we’ve also found that it’s relatively rare to find strong strategic relationships between leaders in enrollment management/institutional finance and academic leaders charged with making progress on core student success priorities. Our conversations with provosts from four-year institutions echo what we’re hearing from enrollment managers and CFOs. The ongoing invisibility of transfer students, coupled with weak ties between academic leaders and those leaders focused on the institution’s enrollment strategy and broader financial health, points toward important areas of work for institutions committed to ensuring transfer student success.

In other words, without a deliberate focus on incentives, policies and practices that align with a commitment to transfer student success, four-year institutions may remain more focused on taking the transfers they get, rather than strategically recruiting them and supporting their success. And that’s ultimately not good for transfer students.

It’s great for institutions to be transfer-friendly, but building truly transfer-receptive cultures will depend on transfer students being treated in policy and practice as a strategic enrollment priority for four-year institutions.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Wednesday, June 9, 2021
Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Wednesday, June 9, 2021