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All Things Transfer

How institutions are evolving to meet the needs of a growing market
University Business, April 2011
Transfer organizations help student involvement in the community, like these members of the Beta Sigma chapter of Tau Sigma at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who helped build a playground in Detroit.

Transfer used to be what happened when students realized too late that they picked a college or university that wasn't right for them. It wasn't until recently that the valuable market of transfer students has started being studied and really tapped into.

"For a while, transfers were kind of looked at as extra," says Bonita C. Jacobs, executive director of The National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Texas. Admissions offices began realizing they'd be left behind if they didn't start recruiting transfers.

How common has transfer become? Results from a 2009 survey of 800 freshmen by WiseChoice, an online college search service, reveal that 35 percent had thought about transferring. If this survey is representative of the approximately 2 million students who embark on a college degree each year, admissions offices potentially have 700,000 transfers to reach for recruiting.

Here's how admissions and enrollment departments have shifted their focus to meet the demands of this growing educational niche in the last decade:

Ten years ago, when Jacobs was working as the vice president for student affairs in charge of enrollment management at UNT--which is currently fourth in the nation for its number of transfers--little was known about this unique population.

Students thinking about transferring to The University of Texas at Austin can access an information portal geared toward them directly from the institution's homepage.

"I went to the literature to try to find out about transfers and there was almost nothing," Jacobs says. "I thought, 'I'll go to a conference.' There were none."

So she started an organization to solve this problem. The response was astounding--the first conference had representatives from 39 states and Canada. Originally, the institute focused on service-providing, advising, and orientation. Now, it looks at "all things transfer," as Jacobs puts it, including state policy, up-to-date transfer research, admissions, and articulation agreements.

This information is increasingly important for students and institutions, as the economy has forced many students to rethink taking the traditional route toward obtaining a degree and instead to opt for attending a community college or state university before making the move to a more expensive institution.

"For so long, transfer was something that happened that was not necessarily planned for on either the two-year or four-year campus, or even by the student," says George Niebling, assistant director of the UNT transfer institute. The result was what Niebling and his colleagues have coined "accidental transfers." The focus now is on helping students "look at transfer as a holistic experience, moving through an intentional process," he says.

'The window of opportunity for helping a student who's having an issue is very, very short.' -Jim Wiseman, Carroll University

Since transfer is becoming more intentional, there has been a development over the last five years in the use of technology, specifically online technology, to aid in recruiting.

Students are now able to learn about articulation and course pairings prior to beginning the transfer process so they can make an informed decision and choose an institution where they can maximize the credits they will be able to transfer toward their major, Niebling says. "It facilitates the process, which is going to lead to more ultimate success and retention by the receiving institution."

Jacobs says many states are doing a better job creating higher ed web portals that serve as online transfer guides where students can access transfer-specific information, even across states. Texas' Transfer 101 guide includes advice, success stories, and resources for students, parents, and military personnel. Many institutions are going as far as making transfer a dominant homepage category.

Recruiting a transfer is just the beginning. Once these students are enrolled and on campus, administrators can focus on retaining transfers. Many have started to look to customer relationship management (CRM) software--from vendors such as Campus Management, Datatel, Hobsons, Intelliworks, Jenzabar, SunGard Higher Education, and Talisma--to help with this.

At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, originally founded to serve transfers, members of a transfers-only chapter of an organization got to know each other better while painting an inner-city high school.

"The key for us has been how to identify which students are most likely not to retain as early as possible so you can start working with them ... to help them retain, so hopefully they will graduate from your institution," says Jim Wiseman, vice president of enrollment at Carroll University (Wis.). His office has been using the Jenzabar Retention Management System 3.0 since 2008.

The system groups students, like transfers, and creates a score, based on factors such as attendance and grades, that represents the likelihood of a student retaining at the university. The score gets updated nightly, and Wiseman is able to identify at-risk transfers based on this model.

"The window of opportunity for helping a student who's having an issue is very, very short," he shares. "If you weren't using something like this that's trying to model, it's very difficult to hit it at the right time."

Flagler College (Fla.) uses CRM to identify students who could benefit from some extra attention. Instructors can send Skeeter Key, director of advising and retention, alerts through the Jenzabar Internet Campus Solution system, and he can access all of the students' records and contact them through the system. He recalls one student who had missed three classes and a test. After the student's instructor notified Key, he identified the student as a transfer and contacted him - only to find he'd been sick, and as a transfer student, didn't know where the health clinic was located.

"I didn't know he was brand new just by name, but with just a couple clicks of a button I could see his schedule and past [academic records], and get his phone number," Key says.

He believes this technology is especially helpful for transfers because most of their issues involve taking the proper courses and making sure credits transfer properly to graduate in a reasonable amount of time. "[Transfers] are typically easier to work with than first semester freshmen who've just gotten out of the box and mum's not waking them up in the morning," he says.

Similarly, when Angela Naginey, director of retention at California Lutheran University, started to see a drop-off in retention of transfers three years ago, she turned to CRM to store student data and manage communications. She uploads attributes about students, like GPA, where they're living on campus (or if they're not), and whether they have a job, into the Hobsons EMT Retain system to create queries that allow her to send messages to similar groups of students.

"It's the one-stop shop to help [students] figure out where they need to go depending on what sort of issue they're having," she says. Linda Blommel, director of information systems at St. Leo University (Fla.), who uses a Datatel CRM to track transfers with low GPAs, agrees that these systems are helpful. "It allows us to track student behavior in and out of the classroom," she says.

Since transfers are further along than incoming freshmen--in credits and life experiences--it makes sense for them to be oriented to their new campus in a more sophisticated way.

At Seattle University, instead of focusing on what college life is like, Diane Schmitz, director of commuter and transfer student services, focuses on what it's like at her institution and the academic rigor ahead for new students. She says this is especially helpful for transferring community college students who are not necessarily used to upper-level coursework.

"We used to do a transfer orientation and we didn't really know what we were doing. We took a freshman approach and slapped transfer on the title," says Schmitz. "Now we don't use the word orientation. Students thought 'I don't need this, I've already been to college.' What they need is a transition to a different culture."

Seattle U is among a large group of institutions looking to change the transfer orientation experience.

'Transfers don't get enough recognition, in my opinion, about their academic success.'-Diane Schmitz, Seattle University

"We've heard horror stories of showing the same film of 'Welcome to College' to a transfer as a freshman, which is very insulting," says Jacobs of UNT. She shares that, in both two- and four-year institutions her organization has consulted with, there has been an increased effort to find and implement a more appropriate approach.

Lounge-like communities make transfers feel at home. Members of the Lynn Collegium, one of the transfer and commuter Collegia at Seattle University, can unwind between classes.

Campus involvement can be one of the most memorable parts of a traditional college experience, but transfers often miss out. Just as other aspects of college life have begun to improve for transfers, so has campus involvement.

"For a small group surrounded by a lot of four-year students, it's a little hard for [transfers] to integrate," explains Schmitz. At Seattle U, where most transfers are commuters, five home-like gathering spaces called "collegia" serve as community builders. Equipped with a kitchen, study space, computers, magazines, books, and student staff members, students with common ground can connect between classes.

"It busts some of those myths that exist about transfers and commuters that they don't want to be involved, they don't care much about connection, they just want to do their work and go home," Schmitz confirms.

Campuses have also begun to recognize transfer student achievement and to gather the brightest transfers into organizations such as the Tau Sigma National Honor Society, an organization solely for transfers.

"Transfers don't get enough recognition, in my opinion, about their academic success," says Schmitz. Her campus is one of 83 across the country to have formed a chapter of Tau Sigma.

Lee Colquitt, founder and executive director of Tau Sigma, was a transfer to Auburn University (Ala.) in the '80s. "When I got to Auburn, I realized there weren't a whole lot of services for transfers," he recalls. When he returned to the institution as a faculty member in 1995, he found that not much had changed. He formed Tau Sigma and incorporated it as a nonprofit in 1999, an organization where high-achieving transfers could be recognized, practice leadership skills, and extend their campus and community involvement.

"[Members are] coming together with others who have like experiences. I think there's a comfort level in that," says Colquitt. "Once they get involved in the campus they say 'hey, this university is as much mine as anybody else's.'"

This is true at University of Michigan-Dearborn, where 60 percent of incoming students each year are transfers. The university formed the Beta Sigma chapter of Tau Sigma in 2009, 50 years after the institution's inaugural year, "which is symbolic, because we started in 1959 as a university just for transfers," shares Christopher Tremblay, executive director of enrollment management there and advisor to the Beta Sigma chapter. "We see it as sending a message that we're transfer friendly."

In the last five years, more leaders from private institutions have been seeking advice from the UNT transfer institute. Niebling suggests that working toward involving students at those institutions could be one of the most important steps toward retaining. "Sometimes the campus culture will be different simply because of the number of students, so integrating transfers into the campus is a real opportunity for the privates to grasp and engage these students."