Attracting More Transfer Students: A Strategic Imperative for Four-Year Colleges

June 05, 2024

n previous blog posts, we’ve talked strategically about how to plan for the aftermath of the 2025 enrollment cliff.

We've discussed a variety of topics ranging from diversifying income streams to leveraging new technologies for a competitive edge. In this post, we’ll focus on one specific growing opportunity for four-year institutions: the recruitment and retention of transfer students.

The Changing Dynamics of Higher Education

Four-year colleges across the United States are facing a demographic dilemma. The number of high school graduates, a traditional source of incoming freshmen, is plateauing or even declining in certain regions. According to data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the total number of high school graduates is projected to peak in 2025-2026 and then enter a period of decline. This demographic shift poses a significant challenge to colleges reliant on traditional student recruitment methods.

Simultaneously, there is a growing pool of potential transfer students. A transfer student is a person who has graduated from high school, enrolled in college courses, and obtained at least 12 credit hours of transferable coursework. Veterans are typically considered transfer applicants, as well. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that college transfer enrollment grew in the fall of 2023 by 5.3 percent compared to fall 2022 (+62,600). Transfer enrollment represents 13.2 percent of all continuing and returning undergraduates, up from 12.5 percent last year and 12.3 percent in fall 2021. Upward transfers from two-year to four-year institutions drove the growth, increasing by 7.7 percent, and these students represent a valuable demographic for four-year institutions seeking to boost enrollment and maintain financial sustainability.

Why Recruiting Transfer Students Makes Sense

Given the current deficit in prospective students, attracting transfers is a strategic imperative for four-year colleges for several compelling reasons:

  • Strengthening Enrollment Numbers: By actively recruiting transfer students, colleges can offset declines in freshman enrollment and maintain a steady student population.
  • Improving Retention Rates: A study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation revealed that transfer students, on average, have higher graduation rates compared to native students at selective four-year institutions.
  • Addressing Cost Concerns: Transfer students may have completed prerequisite courses at lower-cost institutions, making them a cost-effective addition to the student body.

Tactics for Attracting and Retaining Transfer Students

To effectively attract and enroll transfer students, four-year colleges can implement targeted strategies tailored to this unique demographic:

Streamlined Transfer Processes

One way to smooth the path for prospective transfer students is to simplify and expedite the application and credit evaluation process. Inside Higher Ed notes that communication is key, especially at three points in the process: 1) transcript intake, 2) transcript evaluation, and 3) faculty review of unevaluated courses.

For example, a simple email acknowledgement that a transcript has been received is baseline and should include a timeline of official evaluation. And consider automating the process by which faculty evaluate and communicate course equivalency. This should reduce the time students spend tracking down and lobbying individual faculty to consider transfer credit, which isn’t only time-consuming but potentially intimidating. Data also shows that student satisfaction increases when they know graduation requirements at the receiving institution prior to transfer, receive advice about transferring from faculty or staff at both the feeder or receiver institutions, live on campus, and have higher social engagement.

Academic and Social Supports

Transfer students often arrive with a set of academic and social needs that can significantly differ from those of first-year students, necessitating tailored support strategies to facilitate their successful integration and progression.

Academic support for these students can begin with specialized orientation sessions that focus specifically on credit transfer processes and degree requirements, ensuring they understand how their prior credits apply to their new academic pathways. Advising plays a critical role; dedicated advisors for transfer students can help navigate the often-complex terrain of a new curriculum, mitigating the risk of taking unnecessary courses and extending their time to degree completion. These advisors can also connect students with faculty mentors in their fields of study, fostering academic engagement and professional networking.

The social needs of transfer students can differ as well. Consider creating communities among transfers through dedicated living-learning spaces or transfer student organizations can provide a shared space for experiences and challenges, helping to build a supportive peer network. Moreover, hosting regular workshops and social events specifically designed for transfer students can promote integration into the broader university community, addressing feelings of isolation and fostering a sense of belonging.

Institutional Partnerships, Agreements and Aid

Four-year colleges can adopt several collaborative strategies with community colleges, the military and other educational organizations to create streamlined pathways and clear agreements that facilitate the transfer process for students. These can include:

  • Articulation Agreements: Establishing comprehensive articulation agreements with community colleges is one of the most effective strategies. These agreements should clearly outline which courses are transferable and how they apply to degree programs at the four-year institution. This reduces the ambiguity and loss of credit, ensuring a smoother transition for students.
  • Dual Admission Programs: Four-year institutions can implement dual admission programs with community colleges. These programs allow students to be simultaneously admitted to both institutions, providing a seamless transition to the four-year college once the students complete their associate degree. This often includes advising from both institutions to keep students on track.
  • Transfer Scholarships and Financial Aid: Offering scholarships specifically for transfer students, particularly those coming from community colleges or the military, can alleviate the financial burden and serve as an incentive for completion of their four-year degrees. Financial planning and aid counseling tailored to transfer students can also be extremely beneficial.
  • Pre-Transfer Advising: Four-year colleges can offer pre-transfer advising to students at partner institutions. This can include providing transfer specialists who visit community colleges and military bases to advise students, helping them understand degree requirements and plan their course schedules effectively.
  • Military Credit Conversion: Establishing clear policies for the evaluation and acceptance of military training as college credits can significantly benefit veterans and active-duty military personnel seeking to pursue higher education. Collaborating with military education coordinators can help to align the training with relevant academic credits.
  • Online Portals and Resources: Developing online portals that offer resources, such as transfer guides, degree maps, and articulation agreements, can help transfer students navigate the requirements and processes involved in moving to a four-year institution. These tools can provide clarity and accessibility for students planning their academic futures.
  • Joint Faculty and Curriculum Development: Engaging faculty from both the community colleges and the four-year institutions in curriculum development can ensure alignment of course content and learning outcomes. This can help in minimizing the discrepancies in course content and expectations between the two levels of education.
  • Career Pathway Programs: Creating career pathway programs that link academic courses with specific career tracks can be particularly effective. These programs involve collaboration with industry partners as well as educational institutions to provide students with both academic education and practical experience.


Attracting transfer students is not only a prudent strategy but also a necessary one for four-year colleges grappling with declining prospective student numbers. By prioritizing transfer student recruitment and implementing tailored tactics, colleges can diversify their student populations, enhance academic outcomes, and ensure long-term institutional viability. The evolving landscape of higher education demands adaptability and innovation, and embracing transfer student recruitment represents a strategic pivot towards a sustainable future for four-year colleges.