Traditional Student Demand

The Opportunity Cost of Ignoring Community College-Bound Students

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It's that time of year when most deposits have come in, shaping the next fall class. Many four-year institutions will consult data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) to take note of where non-enrolling students chose to attend and conduct admitted student surveys. Then, most will shift focus to other things: the students who will attend in the fall and the next recruitment cycle.

Few schools, however, will keep the lines of communication open with admitted students who chose a community college instead. But Eduventures data shows why these schools may have an important advantage when the time comes to enroll transfer students.

Not if I See You First!

The Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University reports that about 80% of community college students enter freshman year with the goal of completing a bachelor’s degree. The common assumption is that these students start searching for transfer schools as they get closer to completing the 60 credits required for an associate degree. This is when institutional recruitment efforts often start.

But Eduventures Transfer Student Research shows that at this point, many prospective transfer students are already pretty set in their plans, and the window of opportunity to attract them may have closed. More than half (55%) of the prospective transfer students in our research reported they started thinking about potential transfer schools

Figure 1 charts when each of the Six Transfer Types we identified began looking for their transfer schools.


Started Considering Transfer Schools by Eduventures Six Transfer TypesFigure 1. 


To understand when the window of consideration closes for prospective transfers, we will specifically examine the two Transfer Types predominantly found at community colleges: Follow the Plan and Cost Saver students. These students say that transferring to a different school was always part of their academic plans, but for different reasons.

Follow the Plan students seek a specific location and more rigor, while Cost Savers are exclusively driven by cost considerations. Figure 1 reflects those long-term plans and shows that 60% of Follow the Plan students and 67% of the Cost Saver students said they started to consider potential transfer schools before they enrolled at their current schools—and long before they would identify themselves to a four-year school as a potential transfer student.

For four-year schools, this means that the recruitment outreach to students who ultimately decided to attend a community college was by no means a wasted effort. These students may very well keep a four-year school in mind for a later time if that school had already admitted them at one point.

This begs the question: if so many of these students already think about transfer schools before they enter post-secondary education, have they already made up their minds when they start inquiring as prospective transfer students? The data suggests that this depends on the Transfer Type. Figure 2 shows responses to the question about the timing of the final decision to transfer. Note that this question is not about where they will transfer to but rather whether they will transfer at all.


When Do Students Make the Final Decision About Whether they Will TransferFigure 2.


Considering that 60% or more of the two Transfer Types we examine here told us that transferring had always been part of the plan, less than half—46% of all Follow the Plan and 38% of all Cost Saver students—reported they had already made a definite decision to transfer at the time they took our survey. True to their cost-conscious nature, Cost Savers are more likely to hold off on the decision until they have all the financial aid information. Follow the Plan students, who seek academic rigor or a specific location, also wait to make their decisions—often until they receive all admissions decisions.

This suggests that while these students start thinking about potential transfer schools very early in their academic careers, the transfer destination is by no means a done deal. Many prospective transfer students make their decisions dependent on specific information from their schools of interest. It is easy to see why four-year schools that keep communicating with non-enrollees who chose a community college may have an advantage when it comes to enrolling these students as transfers. They had more time and opportunity to get to know these students and their priorities, and to communicate how they can support them.

Conversely, schools that wait until these students inquire as transfer prospects before reengaging with them have lost momentum. They not only enter a crucial recruitment phase with less information about these students, but may also miss an important opportunity to get on their “short lists” in the first place.

The Bottom Line: The Elephant in the Transfer Office

Four-year schools that continue to communicate with inquiries who ultimately enrolled at community colleges may have a better chance at attracting and enrolling them as transfer students than those who don’t. But it is also worth noting that there is more at stake than enrollment numbers alone.

While most students who enter community college as freshmen plan to transfer to a four-year school, less than a third of these students ultimately transfer. Not only does this diminish the pool of prospective transfer students to recruit from, but it also means that many students don’t achieve their goals of completing a four-year degree. We know from our previous research that the students who successfully transfer in the current system are less likely to be first generation, low income, or underserved minority. Community colleges, however, tend to serve these populations in greater numbers.

Perhaps it is time to put communication with prospective transfer students in a different context. What if this type of outreach served two purposes? Our research suggests it’s a strong recruiting strategy. But could it also serve as way to support these students through their journeys, a means of helping them navigate the obstacles they encounter in the absence of other guidance and support? Not only might this help enroll more transfer students, but it could have a positive impact beyond making institutional enrollment targets.

Our forthcoming 2021 Transfer Student Research will examine how the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted their plans. Stay tuned for more insights soon to come.

Never Miss Your Wake-Up Call

Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

Eduventures Senior Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA

Tuesday May 18, 2021 at 2PM ET/1PM CT

Despite a year full of new challenges, you’ve made it past May 1. Whether you’re breathing a sigh of relief or still working to get more deposits across the finish line, you’re looking towards summer and anticipating melt while being mindful of the need to direct attention towards future classes. What strategies can you implement now to put you in the best position come fall?

In this webinar, we’ll hear from VP of Digital Solutions Reva Levin, who will identify practical and effective digital engagement strategies to help you stay connected to your admitted students throughout the summer, new opportunities to reach transfer students and bolster your incoming class, and emerging channels that can boost inquiry generation for future years.

This recruitment cycle challenged the creativity of enrollment teams as they were forced to recreate the entire enrollment experience online. The challenge for this spring will be getting proximate to admitted students by replicating new-found practices to increase yield through the summer’s extended enrollment cycle.

By participating in the Eduventures Admitted Student Research, your office will gain actionable insights on:

  • Nationwide benchmarks for yield outcomes
  • Changes in the decision-making behaviors of incoming freshmen that impact recruiting
  • Gaps between how your institution was perceived and your actual institution identity
  • Regional and national competitive shifts in the wake of the post-COVID-19 environment
  • Competitiveness of your updated financial aid model
Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

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