Part V: The Millennial Transfer Student

More than one-third of college students don’t finish school where they started

In generations past, high school graduates often applied to a dream school and a few safety schools, waited impatiently for acceptance letters, and then committed to a school for life, taking great pride in identifying as a Wildcat, a Seminole or a Tar Heel long beyond college graduation. But increasingly, economic and educational realities have made the traditional college experience impractical for millennials. This means the population of students that go straight from high school to a four-year university and stay there through graduation is dwindling.

A 2015 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study surveyed 3.6 million college students who started their undergraduate careers in 2008 and found 37.2 percent had transferred between universities. In addition, of the students who chose to transfer, 45 percent changed schools more than once.

For career college students, this percentage may be even higher. Because career college students are more likely to have had some college experiences and then a stint in the working world before returning to education, they’re likely to have some college credits but no degree. Yet this important group of students is still largely overlooked in career college recruitment planning, an oversight that is detrimental to both their college experience and your enrollment goals.  

Additionally, while traditional transfer students aren’t likely to experience the same success as students who attend school in a more traditional manner, the opposite may hold true for those transferring to a career college.

A study published on Inside Higher Ed earlier this year found that while 60 percent of students who start college at a four-year institution earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, only 14 percent of those who start at a community college and intend to transfer to a four-year school do. Research from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center postulates the barriers to degree attainment are lack of early momentum, unclear transfer pathways and absence of actually transferring, perhaps because they aren’t encouraged to do so. Each of these barriers needs more attention — for the sake of your enrollment and for the sake of these students.

However, the report titled “Do Students Benefit From Going Backward?” found that reverse transfer students (those who transfer from a four-year to a two-year school) are more likely to complete the two-year college programs than peers who began at such schools. Why? Author Vivian Yuen Ting Liu noted, “Struggling students at four-year colleges may want to transfer because they perceive that they have a lower likelihood of success at their original institution. And, too, struggling students at four-year colleges have compelling financial reasons to transfer to two-year colleges.”

Finances aren’t usually transfer students’ only concern, either. Transfer students are more likely to be first generation, working full time, parents, students with high financial need or veterans. They may have unique characteristics that create challenges for their studies, engagement levels and your enrollment tactics. Here’s how to face those challenges head-on and make transfer students feel at home on your campus:

Including millennial transfer students in your enrollment strategy

  1. Perform targeted outreach. Identify students who may want to transfer to your school but aren’t going to be courted by your traditional recruitment mailers (pssst — that’s most millennials). Design special communications for denied first-year students from last fall, those who were accepted but chose instead to enroll in a community college, and last year’s transfer inquiries.
  2. Make them feel wanted. Treat millennial transfer students like the special population they are. Create transparent transfer-specific landing pages on your website and tailor application guides, FAQs and communications to their needs. Offer campus visits — complete with unofficial transcript evaluations, financial aid personnel and faculty advisors — designed to answer the many questions transfer students are sure to have. Foster an atmosphere of fun and inclusion by inviting spouses and families to these events.
  3. Encourage them to apply. Often, students are considering many schools and will transfer to the first that shows it can meet their needs. If your school can present interest and the appropriate transfer credit reports to the student earliest in the process, you’ll likely have a better chance of recruiting that student. 
  4. Evaluate applications immediately. A study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reported that the acceptance rate for transfer students was slightly lower than the acceptance rate for first-year students. Based on their individual circumstances, you may need to put more effort into evaluating transfer students’ transcripts. When you can speed up admissions decisions, you not only have the edge on recruitment but can better predict course demand for the following semester, heading off frustration and staffing woes.
  5. Implement transfer credit policies. A report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows almost 40 percent of transfer students got no credit for their previously completed courses, losing an average of 27 credits each — almost a year’s worth of full-time credits. Perhaps this is because their credits had expired or because they had drastically changed majors, but the report also found as many as 31 percent of these students didn’t tell their new schools about the credits. Make sure to ask whether they’ve completed any college credits previously.
  6. Anticipate their questions: “How long will it take to complete my degree if I’m working fulltime?” “Does your campus offer housing options other than dorms?” “Do the business courses I took at my previous school mean I don’t have to take Business 101 for my degree here?” “Will you help me find a job in my field after graduation?” Let these students know that you understand their concerns and have the resources in place to address them.
  7. Get right to the point. Since millennial transfer students are often already in school, working, caring for a family or even all three, their time is precious. Offer one-stop enrollment days, evening and weekend appointment opportunities, and make robust transfer guides available online.
  8. Make a connection. Ensure your staff has the time for real conversations with students and the training to make these conversations matter. Make sure they are well-versed in the logistics of transferring: These students will want to know which of their courses, credits and grants will follow them to your school, how your institution is positioned to help them succeed, and what life will be like as a student at your college or university — be ready with the answers and a bit of reassurance.

Thousands of transfer students are considering their next academic move right now. Harness their eagerness to learn: Reach out, anticipate their unique needs, make enrollment decisions quickly and equip your staff with quick answers to questions. Then, get ready to meet a whole new population of students just waiting to call your campus home.

Trouble in the career college industry leading to more transfers

Recently, the Department of Education has forced hundreds of career college campuses to shut their doors, leaving more than 40,000 students without a school to attend this fall. Already, leaders at remaining institutions are opening their doors to these students, many of whom are looking for a new place to learn. “This was a very difficult situation that was thrust onto students at the last minute through no fault of their own. So we want to do everything we can to assist them,” said Linda Fossen, vice president of student services at Bellingham Technical College.

Consider making the best of a bad situation. Make sure your school is following regulations so you can remain a constant in the lives of your currently enrolled students, and do what you can to welcome last-minute transfer students.

"Whatever you choose to do, do not give up on your education," Education Secretary John King said to displaced students. "Higher education remains the clearest path to economic opportunity and security. Restarting or continuing your education at a high-quality, reputable institution may feel like a setback today, but odds are it will pay off in the long run."

Sidebar: Where do community college students transfer?

  • ·  Public four-year school, less selective: 56 percent
  • ·  Private nonprofit school: 20 percent
  • ·  Public four-year school, highly selective: 15 percent
  • ·  Private for-profit school: 8 percent

A study conducted by the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) found that, among students who transferred, Black and Hispanic students, as well as students who performed poorly and accrued fewer credits at community colleges, were more likely than others to transfer to career colleges than to nonprofit or public colleges.