Traditional Student Demand

Six Transfer Student Types for Better Student Engagement

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Transfer students have long been treated as an afterthought, but the perfect storm has now made landfall. This fall, freshman enrollment at community colleges declined by 23%, shrinking the typical transfer prospect pool significantly. Eduventures also found that one out of every five freshmen at four-year schools was at least questioning whether to return in the spring (although most of these students did return, still far more than last year did not). This, of course, comes on the heels of NACAC’s change to its code of ethics, paving the way for schools to pursue students enrolled at other schools.

In a nutshell, the transfer market is about to become very interesting, and it’s time to take a closer look at this audience.

What Do We Want? Different Things!

Eduventures Transfer Student Research aims to understand these students’ unique motivations, priorities, and concerns. These differences matter when it comes to recruitment and, ultimately, a positive transfer experience. Unlike more mercurial college-bound high school students, transfer students are already familiar with college and their priorities are grounded in actual experience. This means that recruitment strategies designed for high school students can’t be as effectively applied to the transfer population.

But even though all transfer students may have some things in common, it doesn’t mean they are all alike either. Certainly, segmenting these students based on their transfer direction (i.e., the types of schools they’re transferring from and to) provides an important understanding of how those who transfer from a two-year school differ from those who transfer from a four-year school, for example. But our research also shows that this type of analysis alone masks a wider variety of factors motivating the transfer and influencing the final enrollment decision.

Eduventures transfer research has led us to identify six distinct Transfer Student Types. We call them: Life Happens, Trading Up, Help Wanted, Find My Passion, Follow the Plan, and Cost Saver (Figure 1). Note: these Transfer Student Types have been updated from those originally published in 2018 to allow for the inclusion of students who transfer from both two-year and four-year schools.


Figure 1. Eduventures Six Transfer Student Types

Life Happens Trading Up Help Wanted Find My Passion Follow the Plan Cost Saver
15% 17% 12% 20% 17% 19%
Personal circumstances have changed for these students, and now they are looking for a more flexible or affordable education option, often in a new location. These students seek more prestige and rigor. Some also want to spread their wings and move farther from home. Looking for a change, these students are often driven by academic struggles. They seek better support services and, sometimes, more flexibility. These students want a school that offers a specific program or location, which they perceive to be a better choice than their current school. Transferring to a more rigorous school was always part of the plan. Aside from rigor, these students seek a specific location, but also a school that will likely accept them. These students always wanted to transfer to save money. Cost is the single most important factor in selecting a transfer school.

Source: Eduventures 2019 Transfer Student Research


These Six Transfer Student Types are organized here on a spectrum from “circumstantial” on the left of Figure 1 (current circumstances drive the choice to transfer) to “intentional” on the right (transferring was always part of the plan). They show that transfer student motivations are quite diverse.

Figure 2 illustrates that students on the “intentional” end of the spectrum (on the right) are the most likely to originate at a two-year school.


Current Enrollment School by Transfer Student TypeFigure 2.


This aligns with our general knowledge about transfer students: those at two-year schools are often following a well-thought-out plan, while students at four-year schools are more often driven by dissatisfaction with their current situations (see Eduventures Transfer Student Research Report™, Part 2: Retrospective Transfer Students). But we also see that, overall, at least some portion of each Transfer Type can be found at both two-year and four-year schools.

This suggests that we need to broaden our way of thinking about transfer students—too often as a homogenous group of practical, cost-conscious students who start at a community college or other “starter school” to save money and then transfer to a low-cost public institution to complete a four-year degree. In reality, only about a fifth of transfer students, the Cost Savers, fall into this category.

Demographically, the Transfer Student Types look largely similar to each other. For instance, we see no significant differences in racial background, household income, or age among the Transfer Student Types. One exception is the Trading Up students, who are more likely to be male and have two college-educated parents. But the search for a transfer school differs in significant ways.

Some transfers want to take the plunge because they crave more rigor (e.g., Trading Up and Follow the Plan), while others like Help Wanted seek less rigor and more support. Others want change – their current path no longer fits their life, or they desire a different location, like Life Happens students. Life Happens students are also not yet completely sold on the transfer decision. They are least likely to say they will “definitely transfer” (43%) compared to 73% of Follow the Plan students, who are most likely to be sure of their plans.

The Bottom Line

This means that the common strategy of creating a singular transfer message is not the best possible strategy for engaging transfer prospects. Perhaps more so than ever before, it will be necessary to stay relevant in the increasingly competitive transfer recruitment landscape. Here are some places to start:

  • Understand your current transfer students. Identify which Transfer Student Types have been enrolling at your institution. You can do this by training your recruiters and advisors on these Transfer Student Types, and encouraging them to get to know these students during admissions events and onboarding. Are they coming because of lower cost, academic reputation, or location? Are they seeking specific academic programs or more flexibility? Understanding your current transfer students will give you an indication why transfer prospects are looking at you – and which Transfer Student Types you might be missing.
  • Fine-tune your messaging. Is your institution attracting Cost Saver and Help Wanted students, but you’d like to enroll more academically-minded transfers? Examine your current transfer messaging. Do you talk about your rigorous academics? Do you highlight specific academic programs? While you should always talk to transfer prospects about cost and credit transfers, there are other relevant messages that may currently be missing from your outreach.

Our data also shows that the different Transfer Student Types interact with schools at different times in the admissions process. This suggests that timing matters as much as the message in personalized and distinctive transfer student recruitment … but that’s a story for another Wake-Up Call.

For more information on which channels prospective transfers at two-year and four-year schools use, consult the Transfer Student Research tool in Encoura® Data Lab.

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Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

Eduventures Senior Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA

For many years, transfer students were an afterthought at most institutions. Transfer applications – often the first point of contact with these students – would reliably find their way to the admissions office. Today, however, many schools report declining transfer enrollment, lower graduations at feeder schools, and increasing competition for these students.

New Eduventures® research – released in the Annual Eduventures Transfer Student Research Report™ – examines the transfer student landscape and provides insight into the recruitment process from the students’ perspectives. In this webinar, you’ll learn about prospective transfer students’ priorities, college search resources, and concerns.

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