Keep transfer students at the forefront of effective SEM planning

by Alicia MooreAACRAO Consultant and Dean of Student and Enrollment Services for Central Oregon Community College

Long gone are the days in which students pursue college immediately after high school graduation and complete their higher education career all within the confines of one institution.  Rather, the pathway to a degree is becoming far less linear as more options for how, when and where students complete proliferate.  De los Santos and Wright (1990) first identified transfer student trends in the early 1990’s, coining the phrase “student swirl” as a means to recognize multiple enrollment patterns. Fast forward more than 25 years later and students continue to swirl amongst institutions of all types.  While current national accountability metrics are misaligned with these enrollment patterns, so too are many institutional practices supporting transfer students.  As such, this article briefly highlights the data and best practices that can help an institution excel in their transfer student policies and practices.

A quick review of the data

While multiple studies exist which identify student enrollment patterns at various institutions or within specific states, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2012) recently conducted a nationwide study of 2.8 million first-time students.  Highlights from this research include:

  • 33.1 percent of all students transferred at some point in their academic career.
  • While 14 percent of students transfer their first year, the largest percentage (27%) transfer during their second year.  Remarkably, a combined 20 percent transfer during years four and five.
  • The far majority, 75 percent, of all students only transferred one time, while eight percent did so three or more times.
  • Transfer rates of students starting at two- or four-year institutions are relatively similar, regardless of public or private institution status.

Best practices

Given the above data, it is surprising that more colleges and universities have not adopted policies and practices to serve this population in a more robust manner.  While the list of potential activities is lengthy, the following provides a brief glimpse at practices that enable transfer student success, noting that more comprehensive details can be found in the “Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management” (Hossler and Bontrager, 2015).

  • Transfer Centers:  A key principle of effective enrollment management is to have the right staff, with the right skills, connecting with students at the right time.  Development of a transfer student support center can go a long way to reaching this goal.  Sample services include academic advising, transition support services, transfer student clubs and peer mentoring.
  • Transfer Credit Practices:  Institutions wishing to better serve potential transfer in students will do well by ensuring that transfer credit articulation tools are available online, as well as provide on-the-spot transfer credit evaluation prior to admission.
  • Articulation Agreements:  Upon identifying top transfer student institutions of origin, colleges and universities should actively pursue course- and degree-level articulation agreements, thereby making the transfer of credits more predictable for potential students.
  • Institutional Partnerships:  Much has been written on dual admission agreements.  However, institutions truly wanting to provide services to transfer students will think beyond co-admission programs to consider partnerships that bridge admissions, registration, financial aid, scholarships academic advising student life, tutoring, library and other student and academic support services, among others, at both institutions.

Many SEM professionals focus on recruiting students who “fit” the institution’s enrollment profile.  However, this emphasis often focuses on a traditional, first-year student and fails to recognize the impact transfer students have on that profile.  If an institution truly wishes to excel in being strategic and intentional about its enrollment and student support practices, then it must consider how transfer students are recruited and retained, with the ultimate goal of ensuring their success.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Bruce Clemetsen, Linn-Benton Community College, and Dr. Lee Furbeck, for their assistance with prior research on this topic.


De los Santos, A., Jr., and I. Wright. 1990. “Maricopa’s Swirling Students: Earning One-third of Arizona State’s Bachelor’s Degrees.” Community, Technical, and Junior College Journal 60 (6): 32–34.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). 2012. “Transfer & Mobility: A National View of Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions.” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Retrieved from