Building Your Transfer Outreach Action Plan

By Gil Rogers


Enrollment managers have a lot of things competing for their time. Sometimes our biggest priority is expanding the top of our recruitment funnel to drive as many new enrollments as possible. There are many ways to accomplish this… investing in larger lists of student data, marketing initiatives, and of course good old-fashioned pounding of the pavement in the spring and the fall.

On the other end of the spectrum is boosting selectivity (i.e. “shaping the class”). Oftentimes when we have achieved our goal of “size,” we shift focus to “shape.” We accomplish this in a number of ways as well, including, but not limited to, raising academic standards for admissions, leveraging predictive analytics to identify students with the highest likelihood of applying and/or enrolling (also helpful for growing size, of course), varying financial aid methodologies, and much more.

Somewhere in all of this, of course, many institutions turn to transfer student recruitment for a number of strategic priorities. Some of these priorities can be student-centric (like helping students finish a bachelor’s degree). Other priorities, while supportive of student outcomes, also help with fiscal health of an institution (like filling capacity in upper-level classes to offset a period of poor retention). Given that 30% of higher education management professionals¹ believe retention will decrease or stay the same in 2017, it’s clear that transfer students can be a great population to focus on to bridge enrollment gaps.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with numerous enrollment professionals focused on transfer student enrollment. For some, this is their primary job function. For others, it is a “side of the desk” project. No matter the level of focus, however, one common challenge permeates throughout the profession… reaching and engaging transfer students is hard. Part of this challenge is a channel issue… where can you find and engage these students? The other part is a message issue… what do these students care about?
Recruiting transfer students is not just about “finding them.” It’s also about addressing their needs and concerns in an environment that is oftentimes “freshman focused.” This paper will help to understand not only where to find transfers, but more importantly, why they consider transferring, when they do their research, and what is most important to them. I hope you enjoy it.

Forward: Building Your Transfer Outreach Action Plan

Traditionally, recruiting transfer students have not been a primary focus for many enrollment managers. At many institutions, transfer student services have been a “side of the desk” project for a senior counselor with a local travel territory.
Beginning with the economic recession in 2008, that began to change. Students began considering community college as a first stop to save money on general education courses before completing a 4-year degree. In January 2017, University Business magazine published its “latest trends and predictions for higher ed in 2017” infographic outlining a broad variety of topics… including predictions for retention and enrollment growth in the coming year.

Of note, nearly 30% of higher education professionals believe retention will either decrease or stay the same in 20172… even in an environment when completion, outcomes, and value of the investment continue to be in extreme focus.

Plus, nearly two-thirds of enrollment professionals believe that they will see moderate to significant growth of transfer student enrollment in 2017 as compared to half predicting growth in traditional undergraduates. Finally, we see that far more enrollment managers predict modest to significant decreases in traditional undergraduates (nearly a quarter) while only 10% predict the same trajectory for transfer enrollments. These predictions may of course be impacted by the current labor market.

Additionally, we know that half of students plan to (either passively or proactively) stay off of an admissions officer’s radar, with over half of students waiting to reach out to admissions until they are ready to apply. This indicates a very high probability a student may arrive needing additional advice and support. Further, nearly 25% of students in our poll (of currently enrolled community college students) had been enrolled at a 4-year school prior to their current institutions

Based on what we’re hearing, we know that transfer student recruitment is on the rise with respect to overall priority. But we know that getting students to choose your institution is the first step. Based on recent data from the National Student Clearing House, we know that one out of every three transfers will not graduate with a 4-year degree within 6 years.3

Additionally, we know that half of students plan to (either passively or proactively) stay off of an admissions officer’s radar, with over half of students waiting to reach out to admissions until they are ready to apply. This indicates a very high probability a student may arrive needing additional advice and support. Further, nearly 25% of students in our poll (of currently enrolled community college students) had been enrolled at a 4-year school prior to their current institutions.

This study will seek to answer some important questions we asked of potential transfers, including:

The Transfer Student Mindset

Why Transfer? What’s in Your Way? This study focuses on students who are currently enrolled in a community college. Specifically, we focus on students who intend to transfer (nearly 100% of respondents intend to transfer within the next 2 years). Nearly two-thirds of our respondents have been enrolled in a community college for 2 years or less, so it’s not surprising that the vast majority of respondents are considering transferring to complete a 4-year degree (92%).

The more interesting detail uncovered is that nearly 6 out of every 10 students indicated that they always planned on transferring to another school before enrolling at a community college.

Given the priority of moving on to a 4-year school, we asked students why they chose to attend the community colleges they attended first. It comes as no real surprise that 72% of respondents said cost was the primary factor.

Additionally, 4 in 10 students also said they were unsure of their majors or felt they were unprepared for a 4-year school. When citing “other,” many students indicated family or a significant other (indicating financial commitments).

When asked about their goals at their current community colleges, the focus continues to be around preparing for a 4-year school. Over three-quarters of students indicated a desire to fulfill requirements to transfer to a 4-year school.

Biggest Concerns for Transfers

Understanding that the majority of students currently enrolled at a community college intend to transfer but one out of every three transfers will not graduate with a 4-year degree within 6 years4, we sought to better understand what the areas of greatest concern are for transfer students. We surmised that if we could better understand their challenges, colleges and universities might be better equipped to serve and support this population of students.

First, we asked students about their confidence. We found that most students were very confident that the investment in education was worthwhile (73% completely agree) and were confident they would be successful at a 4-year school once they transferred (95% somewhat to completely agree).

When asked about preparation immediately after high school and/or their confidence in credits transferring, that is when we see a significant shift in students’ views. While there is still relative confidence, it is not as strong as other considerations. Nearly half of students are concerned that their credits won’t transfer to a 4-year school.

Additionally, 2 out of every 3 students felt they were prepared to attend a 4-year school after high school but chose to attend a community college to save money. This further indicates that cost will continue to be a huge consideration when students are considering a 4-year school to apply.

When asked specifically about their biggest concerns in transferring to a 4-year school, the top two factors by far continue to be centered on cost (82%) and course difficulty (56%). Everything else is secondary or not a consideration.

More on Cost

Nearly all respondents (93%) indicated they would consider applying to a public college as compared to less than 40% of respondents considering a private school. This is likely fueled by the assumption that a private school’s cost is going to be higher. This places responsibility on recruiters and financial aid staff at private institutions to be clear about the value and affordability of attending their institutions when speaking to potential transfer students.

Further, over half of respondents say they are relying on financial aid to pay for college. However, that is only part of the story. In reality, students enrolled in community colleges are relying on a combination of sources (including their own income and help from family) to finance their education. It’s of no wonder, then, that cost and value are top of mind for this population of students.

In fact, while the top consideration for transferring is a 4-year school offering their major– three out of the top 5 factors influencing a student’s decision have to do with finances. This indicates that beyond “finding and communicating” with potential transfer students, 4-year schools must be prepared with a message centered on affordability, value, and outcomes.

Is Online the Answer?

At the time of this paper’s final edits, it was announced that Purdue University had entered into an agreement to acquire Kaplan University and transition the school to a not-for-profit online institution dedicated to serving adult and non-traditional students. This announcement came as a surprise to many and will surely spark a lively and spirited debate.

We will reserve commentary on the Purdue/Kaplan acquisition for future papers as the story develops, however, this does bring to the forefront questions about students’ desires to complete 4-year degrees online and the key influencers on these decisions.

Our audience (currently enrolled community college students, mostly enrolled 2 years or less) is potentially part of the population addressed by online programs. About one-third of respondents to our survey indicated they would consider finishing a bachelor’s degree online. The perceived benefits of which include flexibility of schedule (likely driven by areas like work and supporting family as discussed earlier), offering their major, and of course no surprise… cost.

The Complexity of Reaching and Supporting Transfers

When thinking about marketing to transfer students, it’s important to focus on the timing of their intent. For the purposes of this study, we focused on students who are likely to consider transferring within the next 2 years.

With respect to the act of actually transferring, over half of transfers consider the process to be challenging despite over 90% of institutions having a publicly available transfer policy. Additionally, likely in part driven by the understanding that most institutions accept transfer credit (as indicated by the most recent research from AACRAO), 4 in 10 students knew they would transfer before enrolling at their current schools … Did they know what they were getting themselves into?

Additionally, over three-quarters of students are unsure of where they want to transfer to despite the fact that they knew they would transfer before they started and mostly (60%) plan on applying to only about 2 schools.

Additionally, about half (49%) of students are currently seeking out or plan to seek out information on different school options. And yet, over half of students do not plan on reaching out to admissions before they start the process of applying.

This confluence of insights indicates that we are dealing with prospective students who:

  1. Know they plan to transfer
  2. Plan to keep their lists short
  3. Do not know to where they want to transfer
  4. Are actively researching schools with plans to do more
  5. Are actively or passively staying off of your radar

Why Are They Staying Off of Your Radar?

Consider the audience. We polled students who have been enrolled at community colleges for 2 years or less, most of whom would be defined as “traditional age” students (graduated from high school and went on to college). Anecdotally, we have identified two main reasons for students not planning on reaching out to admissions until they are ready to apply:

  1. They’ve been through this rodeo before–Students know that when they reach out to admissions that the admissions office will begin actively recruiting them.
  2. They don’t understand the process–Given that most students feel the process of transferring is challenging, they may not know they can reach out for help before they apply.

This places the responsibility on the admissions and marketing staff at 4-year schools to be proactive and supportive. The next section of this paper will discuss where students start their searches and how they prefer to get their information; informing how we think about building a relationship and deliver our message.

Marketing to Today’s Consumers

Nearly 8 in 10 students use search engines like Google to start their searches when thinking about transferring with use of college search/help sites out-ranking college fairs by 15 percentage points (53% vs. 38%). Additionally, only one-third gets information about possible schools to apply to through brochures. This, of course, is likely driven by the fact that over half are actively or passively staying off of your radar.

Data from Pew indicates that consumers in our target age group (18-29) more frequently use digital rankings and review sites than any other age group, and 13 points higher than the average.6 This indicates a clear favor for content found online when researching and comparing brands.

We’re dealing with a mobile-first population with respect to consumption of media. On average, consumers ages 18-24 spend over 20 hours a week using mobile apps and browsing the web on their smartphones as compared to 15 hours and 36 minutes watching TV/DVR. Additionally, when thinking about the older, but still addressable audience of prospects ages 25-34, this population may be significantly more likely to be watching TV/DVR (22 hours per week) but are also still very active on mobile apps and web (19 hours per week). All other mediums (radio, desktop PC, etc.) are ancillary with respect to overall use.7

Below, our survey shows some very interesting splits between traditional and digital methods with respect to what students value when considering transfer options.

When considering options for transferring, students rank online search engines as the most valuable. This makes sense when you consider the ease in which students can access a broad variety of informational sources about schools. Additionally, school-specific websites (i.e. “your .edu”) are rated nearly as important as browsing the web in general.

Most importantly of note is the divide between digital sources and what we’d consider to be “traditional” methods. College review sites are rated slightly higher than visiting a campus. This indicates a very interesting phenomenon where the influence of peer reviews and evaluations (oftentimes easier to get in an online forum) is just as valuable when researching a school as setting foot on the campus itself.

Another important channel to call out is the college fair. While only 6% of students rate college fairs as the most valuable resource when considering options, it is important to think of the context of most conversations at these fairs.

Many students go to see a rep at a fair for a school they have already applied to. The intent of these conversations is to ask clarification questions about the process… not learn more about the school. So, we must consider college fairs as an engagement point… not a “new contact” generator.

What Does This All Mean?

Understanding that your transfer prospects are digital and mobile-first, but also actively or passively staying off of your radar despite the fact they may need support, means you need to adapt your marketing to ensure you are where students are with a message that resonates and helps them throughout the process. The rest of this paper will focus on some key channels to consider when reaching out to potential transfer students.

Recommendations for Reaching Transfers

Location-Based Mobile Advertising

The data points are clear. Potential transfer students live on their mobile phones (spending 20 hours a week browsing apps and the web). In addition to the points outlined above, we know that 91% of consumers have their phones within arms reach 24 hours a day and the average consumer checks that phone 150 times per day. For Millenials, that number is closer to 300.8

Our prospects are mobile. Our marketing must be, too. Leveraging a technology known as geo-fencing, advertising platforms can cast a virtual boundary around a specific location (ex. a community college campus) and drive specific advertising impressions on any mobile device that enters that boundary.

Not all geo-fencing is created equally, however. Dynamic geo-fencing leverages a combination of data science, automation and human intervention to optimize where ad impressions are served within a fence to focus on the areas of highest engagement.

Once an ad is served, you may choose to drive a prospect to a variety of destinations. This might include your “.edu” (rated as one of the most valuable places for potential transfers), or in the case of your website not being mobile-friendly, you might consider building a custom landing page/interaction that helps to gather additional intelligence on your target markets while also providing prospective students with a better overall experience.

What Should be on Your Landing Page?

Based on our findings with respect to the biggest concerns and influencers of transfer students, landing page content should be highly focused on a few key pieces of information, including affordability and value. Additionally, the process of transferring should be easy to find and understand on a mobile device. We recommend A/B testing content and destinations to identify what works best for your audience (ex. drive half of your visitors to your “.edu” content and the other half to a microsite with focused content).

Tracking Your Recruitment and Marketing Outcomes

There are challenges when measuring the outcomes of your marketing. Based on data from the Social Admissions Report, we can presume that most students will not complete their applications via a mobile device (13%). Additionally, consumers are multi-device. Based on data from Google and TNS, we know that 6 in 10 people own 3 or more internet- connected devices. This, of course, is on top of our findings that over half of potential transfers will actively or passively stay off your radar until they are ready to apply.

This creates major disconnects between connecting your marketing (on mobile devices to students who will stay “stealth” as long as possible) to your desired outcomes (submitted applications and enrollments).

Attribution tracking helps to “connect the dots” by leveraging metadata across the various devices used by prospective students to identify devices we are confident are used by the same person to accomplish tasks. An example of this would be identifying the laptop used to visit your website after a prospect saw or clicked your ad within the geo-fence on their community college campuses.

At a high level, we accomplish this by ensuring the ad units being served and your target web pages (your homepage, application page, request for info page, etc.) are coded to track performance. A strip of tracking code is placed within the ad units that are displayed on your prospects’ mobile devices. Additionally, code is placed on those target pages on your site.

Leveraging NRCCUA’s attribution tracking technology, you can then identify the percent of users who saw or clicked an ad on their phones that took further actions on the same devices later or other devices they are connected to. So, rather than just knowing how many ads you served or clicks you garnered, you can now speak confidently to the overall enrollment impact of your campaign.


As you build your transfer outreach action plan, it is important to consider a few key pieces of information. Keeping these findings and recommendations at the center of your decision-making should help you better serve this traditionally hard-to-reach demographic while simultaneously supporting your institution’s enrollment efforts:

  • Ensure that all recruitment messaging to transfer students is clear and includes an emphasis on affordability and value of the investment in your 4-year school. This is especially true for private institutions.
  • Make the transfer credit process quick and easy to understand. Most prospective transfers find the process challenging and are not as confident that their credits will transfer, as they are confident that they are prepared academically.
  • Understand that students are digital-first and multi-platform when it comes to finding and researching schools (and consuming content in general). Leverage this knowledge when identifying the methods in which you intend to reach out to prospects
  • Respect that students are either passively or actively going to stay off of your radar directly until they are ready to apply. Leverage a combination of programs like location-based mobile advertising and custom microsites to build a relationship without having direct contact.
  • Transfer recruitment is no longer a “side of the desk” project for a mid-level counselor. It’s a strategic imperative for many institutions and should be given the same level of investment in time and resources as traditional student recruitment.

For more information about programs like location-based mobile advertising, custom microsites, and strategic support for recruiting transfer students, visit


Survey Methodology and Demographics


  1. The Latest Trends and Predictions for HigherEd in 2017, University Business, January 2017
  2. The latest trends and predictions for higher ed in 2017, University Business, January 2017
  3. Signature Report 5: Baccalaureate Attainment: A National View of the Postsecondary Outcomes of Students who Transfer from Two-Year to Four-Year Institutions, National Student Clearing House, August 2013
  4. Signature Report 5: Baccalaureate Attainment: A National View of the Postsecondary Outcomes of Students who Transfer from Two-Year to Four-Year Institutions, National Student Clearing House, August 2013
  5. Transfer Credit Policy, Results of the AACRAO May 2017 60-Second Survey, The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, May 2017
  6. Pew Research Center, “Online Shopping and E-Commerce”, December 2016
  7. Nielsen, “The Total Audience Report: Q4 2016”, April 2017
  8. app Locket, 2014
  9. Source: Google and TNS, “Consumer Barometer,” August 2016

Michele Madansky, Ph.D. from Madansky Consulting, managed the research for this project.

Fielding Dates: Email invitations were sent to active users in March 2017.

Number of Responses: Over 670 community college students were included in our study. Findings are reported with a margin of error of +/-4% at the 95% confidence level.

Special Thanks

A huge thanks to the folks who helped to make this study a reality!

  • Debbie Adams, Compliance Monitor, NRCCUA – For helping us ensure we properly crossed all of the T’s and dotted all of the I’s the right way.
  • Lara Carnevale, Designer, Chegg – For her amazing design skills that make this whitepaper not only easy… but also fun to read. a
  • Catie Clark, Regional Director, NRCCUA – For being such an amazing higher education digital marketing expert who helps keep us grounded on what works to support this specific audience of students.
  • Michele Madansky, Madansky Consulting – For amazing insights and intelligence when looking at the data to help us focus on what matters to students.
  • Drew Miller, Partnership Outreach Manager, Chegg – For lending his support in understanding enrollment management to ensure the findings were aligned with what our school partners need to know.
  • Seana Quintero, Art Director, Chegg – For leadership and support across all of the moving pieces of this project.