Published on 2018/10/15
The EvoLLLution | How to Meet the Needs of Incoming Transfer Students
By employing targeted outreach strategies and leveraging dedicated, purpose-built tools, colleges and universities can demonstrate their genuine interest in attracting, enrolling and retaining non-traditional students.

As increasing numbers of students turn to non-traditional pathways for higher education, transfer students are becoming a growing percentage of the on-campus cohort—yet with their transfer-specific questions about transfer credits, orientation and institutional fit often going unanswered during the recruitment process, it’s easy for these learners to feel overlooked by administrative units more preoccupied with attracting and retaining traditional students. In this interview, Rita Detwiler discusses the common obstacles to recruiting transfer students, and points to new strategies and technologies, such as the Common App for Transfer, as ways of better connecting with this unique audience.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Historically, what have been the biggest obstacles to transfers for non-traditional students?

Rita Detwiler (RD): If an institution does not include serving the needs of transfer or non-traditional students as part of its larger strategic plan, it will face real obstacles to attracting and retaining this student population. Many institutions don’t have a unified strategic approach to managing the unique needs of transfer students. This includes everything from how they’re received during orientation, to how they access advising services, and more.

Evo: How do complex bureaucratic and administrative processes tend to impact the student experience—and by extension, a student’s likelihood to enroll at the institution and persist through a credential program?

RD: Institutions often focus on the needs of their traditional student base and apply those same strategies and tactics to non-traditional audiences, which can make transfer students feel like they’re not a priority. Maybe they can’t find information easily when they call a university or college, or maybe they can’t speak to someone who can address their needs. It’s no surprise that these students get frustrated with the process. An institution needs to have retention pieces in place to serve a transfer student’s needs before and after enrollment. If not, the student may decide to find an institution that’s more focused on their needs.

Overall, a lack of institutional attention makes transfer students feel like they’re not important. If an institution doesn’t have specific recruitment, orientation and retention strategies for transfer students, it can make them feel like they’re not a valued part of the community.

Evo: What would you say are the characteristics of an institution that’s well-suited to serving non-traditional transfer students?

RD: First, we know that the number-one informational resource for students is the college or university website. So, if a transfer student can find themselves represented on the website—if they can find the information that they need about the transfer process, if they can learn about an open house, if they can find out about the number of their credits that will transfer in, or who the correct contact person is—that goes a long way towards demonstrating that the institution is committed to making the transfer experience a positive one.

Second, successful institutions have people who are solely responsible for working with the transfer student population in the recruitment, enrollment and admissions office. These individuals recognize that transfer students have needs that are different from a traditional high-school student, and they work to accommodate them. Once the student goes through the matriculation process, what resources does the institution have for transfer students? Does it have an orientation process for transfer students, and dedicated transfer student advising? Where do transfer students find the information they would have otherwise received at a general orientation—information about parking or meals or extracurricular organizations? The institution needs to anticipate and respond to the questions that transfer students would typically have.

Evo: For front-line staff whose job is to engage with non-traditional and transfer students, what are some of the biggest challenges that they face from the administrative side when it comes delivering a high level of service and support?

RD: The front-line person in the admissions office is responsible for getting transfer students acclimated to the institution, so they need to be able to understand the needs of this student population and be proactive in meeting those needs. They can help to connect transfer students to resources across the campus, like advising and orientation services. In order to do this successfully, though, the transfer student population needs to be a broader institutional and strategic priority.

Evo: How does the Common App for Transfer help to address some of these issues, both for students and also for staff?

RD: The Common App for Transfer eases the application process because it allows transfer students to submit one transfer application to many different colleges that meet their criteria across the country and internationally. It asks students detailed questions about their experiences, accomplishments and achievements, so that admissions counselors at prospective institutions can know more about that student’s needs and interests: what they want to study, and what they have accomplished. That helps to ensure that an institution is a good fit from the start, and allows admissions counselors to connect prospective transfer students with faculty or staff at the college who could answer more of the student’s questions. This helps make the student feel like a priority, which makes for a smoother transfer process.

Evo: Why does it benefit the receiving institution to make sure that the transfer process goes smoothly for incoming transfer students?

RD: Creating a smooth transfer experience allows us to be more proactive and better prepared to meet the needs of transfer students. Our commitment is to serving students, so our time is well spent when we’re talking to students over the phone or meeting with them in person. The Common App for Transfer also allows admissions professionals to make better use of their time because it prepares them to have the high-touch, personal interaction that transfer students need to feel confident in their academic decisions. Non-traditional transfer students are often working professionals. They want to feel like their time speaking to an admissions counselor is well spent.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the fundamental challenges of trying to create more accessible pathways for non-traditional learners?

RD: These students are typically older and have more mature experiences in the workforce. Having information on the website that is clear and easy for them to follow is incredibly important.

What the Common App has done is really amazing in helping these students understand that they have more options that they might have otherwise considered. It allows them to apply to multiple institutions, some of which they may never have discovered on their own.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • By anticipating and accommodating the unique needs of transfer students, institutions can demonstrate their commitment to this often-overlooked learner population.
  • Whether online or in-person, transfer students should be able to easily access the unique information they need to make academic decisions about prospective institutions.
  • Institutions that apply traditional outreach and recruitment strategies to transfer students imply that they won’t prioritize the transfer student experience—leading transfer students to find institutions that do.