Engaging Transfer Students Before They Arrive

NSSE's 2009 annual report cites low participation in high-impact activities (such as study abroad, service learning, internship, undergraduate research, or senior experience) among transfer students as one measure of engagement and likely persistence. The lowest engagement was from vertical transfers (students who enter four-year institutions from community colleges). In the survey, 62% of native seniors had participated in internships, but only 43% of vertical transfers. Only 7% of vertical transfers participated in study abroad, compared with 20% among native students.

Given the low numbers on engagement, we asked Kurt Thiede, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University, for his tips on engaging vertical transfer students early and fostering affinity for the institution from the first point of contact.

Early Engagement

The earlier the engagement, the more likely affinity becomes. Early engagement with prospective vertical transfers from two-year colleges can take a number of forms, from a campus visit day to a summer program. But whether you have the funding for a visit day or a summer program, it is critical to think through what to include in that experience. You will want to expose students to all aspects of life at the university -- the career offices, financial aid, academic advising, study abroad, and co-curricular opportunities. Thiede recommends, "In order to develop strong affinity between student and institution, be as transparent as possible, and provide as close to the real campus experience as possible."

"Transfer students have college experience behind them -- they're more savvy consumers in many cases than the traditional eighteen-year-old. It behooves us to provide them with as much of a snapshot as we can of what our college experience is all about, rather than just pointing them to the literature and to the application process. This is a group that should be visiting classes, meeting with faculty."
Kurt Thiede, Bucknell University

Make it Easy for the Students

To get a transfer student engaged and prepared for success, remove the obstacles to engagement. Thiede recommends:

  • Get timely, consistent information to transfer students
  • Keep the conversation going after the visit

First, make sure that the first exposure to your campus -- whether in the form of a day visit or a bridge program -- includes:

  • Credit evaluation
  • Information on academic majors
  • A discussion of financial aid
  • An introduction to student life and activities
  • A meeting with an academic advisor

Transfer students, Thiede notes, have many questions to ask that traditional students don't have. They will want to know whether their college credit will transfer, whether their past two years of work will count toward their major, and whether they will be able to finish in two years. It will be critical to discuss financial aid as early as possible, and to have a way for conversations about credit evaluation to happen in a timely fashion, to provide the student adequate information before they need to make a decision.

Vertical transfers may also have questions about student life:

  • How do I make up for lost time?
  • What do I need to know about this place?
  • How do I find friends?

Make sure that your day visit or other program is set up to help prospective students understand what the campus culture is all about and what avenues are available to them for entering pre-established student networks. After all, they may be walking into a class that has been at your campus for 2 years already. Peer mentors can be especially useful in facilitating a transfer student's entry into campus life.

Keep the Conversation Going

At Bucknell, faculty mentors that the prospective transfers meet during the summer program work with them throughout the following year to ensure they register for courses at their two-year institution that will transfer and give them credit toward their desired major.

"Early advising, once you have a transition pipeline, can save students time, money, and frustration."
Kurt Thiede, Bucknell University

Peer mentoring can also be an effective solution. In either case, early advising both helps the student prepare for a smooth transfer and keeps the student in conversation with the institution.

Above all, Thiede recommends taking a one-stop approach to communications with your vertical transfers. "Have a point person," he advises, "a key resource that transfers can tap into, and who can route them toward the resources they need."

Build a Pipeline for Vertical Transfers

An effective partnership with a two-year college is not necessarily just about getting more transfer students. It can be about getting the right transfer students. Identify the students who are the best fit for your institution and then engage them in a discovery of your campus. These students will be easier to engage and retain.

Kurt Thiede suggests that when partnering with two-year colleges, it is critical not only to build strong alliances between representatives of both institutions, but to be very clear on how the program fits into your institution's larger enrollment plan.

He offers the example of a university who partnered with a local community college to offer a well-intentioned summer program that would bring 25-30 two-year students to experience the academic experience at the university. Yet once the students fell in love with that experience, it was only to find that there were no spots open for them at the university.

"The enrollment manager needs to be clear about the strategic enrollment goals for that partnership. Without that direction, you develop a whole lot of interest from prospective students without fulfilling it -- it can become an empty promise."
Kurt Thiede, Bucknell University

This means ensuring that enrollment spots and financial aid are held for students who participate in the day visit or summer program.

It also means cultivating strong partnerships not only with representatives at the community college, but with representatives across your own institution. Besides financial aid, you will need to engage student affairs in dialogue about the unique needs of the transfer population. You will want to work with faculty champions to help debunk myths about transfer and community college students.

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