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Being a Campus Advocate for Transfer Students: A Survival Guide for Higher Education Senior Leaders

Written by

Stephen Handel, College Board; NISTS Advisory Board Member

Eileen Strempel, University of California, Los Angeles; NISTS Advisory Board Member

The changing higher education landscape means that senior leaders may need to adapt their long-standing enrollment strategies—for institutional survival and the greater good. In this post, two NISTS Advisory Board members offer five strategic considerations for those looking to transfer students to meet their enrollment targets. It is post Number 1 in our NISTS blog series, Transfer Advocacy in a Post-Pandemic Higher Education Biosphere.

largely blurred blog cover photo featuring a staff meeting with a woman working on her ipad in the foreground

Prior to the catastrophic events of 2020, student enrollment within higher education was becoming increasingly unsettled. In a widely influential book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (2018), author Nathan Grawe predicted a sharp and potentially devastating demographic cliff in this decade. Graw believes that as a result of a steady but inexorable birth rate drop that began during the Great Recession (2007–2009), colleges and universities will need to scramble to meet their enrollment targets throughout most of the current decade, with only the strongest likely to survive. Closely related to this theme is The College Stress Test (2020) by Robert Zemesky, Susan Sharman, and Susan Campbell Baldridge, which predicted the closure of hundreds of institutions because of their precarious financial positions.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

If senior leaders did not understand it before, they certainly must now know that diversifying their institution’s enrollment stream will be key to survival. But such a strategy is something more than trying to recruit the students you’ve traditionally enrolled: eighteen-year-olds fresh from their high school graduation ceremony. Not only will there be fewer of these students, but your more selective competitors will already have them in their sights. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is, as they say, cause for an institutional commitment of a very different sort.

“If there are fewer students, how can I diversify my enrollments?” This is a fair question—and one that reveals higher education’s traditional blinders. While Grawe and others (see, for example, Jon McGee’s book Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education, 2015) predict a significant drop in high school graduates, they say almost nothing about transfer students, especially older students who have earned postsecondary credits but have no college degree. In our book Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st-Century Students (2021), we highlight the fact that there are thirty-six million individuals in the US with some college credit but no accompanying credential or degree. Perhaps they started college but stopped to begin a family (nearly a third of all community college students are also parents). Or perhaps the Great Recession or the pandemic put a damper on the family finances, necessitating a delay in their pursuit of a college degree. Whatever the reason, colleges and universities that nurture and sustain a relationship with transfer students are likely to benefit from a stream of students to meet enrollment targets. Institutions must intentionally re-focus their energies on our accelerated “new normal,” and on the students we refer to in our book as “neo-traditional.” Neo-traditional students—those from historically underrepresented backgrounds, parent-students, older, first-generation and/or low income—now comprise seventy-six percent of our nation’s college students. Higher education has to shift and change in order to effectively serve our public.

The possibilities of transfer students, who will hopefully bring tuition revenue and add to a vibrant and diverse campus, now seems inspired and aligned with a desire to “do well while doing good.” For leaders exploring the benefits of increasing the numbers of transfer students on their campuses, we urge a thoughtful and introspective approach that remains student centered rather than institutionally focused. Here are several strategic considerations:

Create a Transfer-Affirming Culture

Creating a campus environment that welcomes transfer students and reinforces their legitimacy as a key student constituency requires advocates to engage in some basic but pivotal activities. The diffuse leadership structure of colleges and universities means that your advocacy must include substantive conversations with other colleagues whose academic and/or professional portfolio will connect with transfer students—not only in the classroom but outside the classroom as well. As you engage with academic senate leaders, your chief enrollment officer, the registrar, the financial aid director, and others, the conversation must delineate how your campus is specifically attractive to transfer students. How do your institutional rhetoric and actions position your campus to enroll and serve them well? With thirty-six million American adults who have some college credit and no degree, there is a substantial potential market, but only if your campus adapts its culture and practice to remain student centered in ways that serve the needs of these neo-traditional students.

Make Transfers Visible on Your Campus

As a campus leader, you must ensure that transfer students are seen and heard. If transfer students are not visible in ways similar to other important campus constituencies, campus faculty and staff will never serve them well. If transfer students are not included as an integral component of campus conversations, your campus community will not be encouraged to engage in dialogue about how to foster a more welcoming campus ecosystem. As a senior campus leader, your role is to name and embrace what is most central to the success of your institution. If you never mention the importance of transfers, the issue is diminished as are the students you wish to recruit and enroll. Your public statements and ceremonies need to highlight transfer students—especially neo-traditional transfer students—as being central to your campus and its mission and vision.

Invest in Transfer Students

Institutions need to ensure that the inclusive rhetoric identified above are advanced with fiscal investments that reinforce an inclusive campus vision regarding transfer students. This investment translates into the creation and expansion of transfer student-specific scholarships and grants. Allocation of financial aid dollars mean that a transfer student pathway is both tangible and navigable. Your campus’s efforts should also include, for example, a one-stop transfer student center that offers the services of transfer champions who mentor and advise transfer students. It should also incorporate a transfer student orientation that is as robust and meaningful as your first-year student orientation. (As one transfer champion remarked, “At many four-year institutions, freshman orientation lasts two or three days, but transfer orientation is only a few hours. What’s wrong with this picture?”) All of these components are individually impactful, and collectively they foster a transfer student culture that is welcoming and receptive.

Honor Transfer Student Credit

Transfer students bring their academic productivity with them in the form of college credit from other institutions or experience gained in the military or the workforce. You must provide a fair rate of exchange for this “currency” of transfer. Institutions need to make it easier for the credits that students have earned to transfer—and to transfer into the major whenever appropriate (not merely into the more amorphous land of electives). Students should be able to easily see—before they enroll—how their courses will map onto your degree programs. Most institutions have found a way to award academic credit for internships and workplace learning for their traditional students. Now we have to embrace the social justice and equity issue of making it easy for our neo-traditional students to be awarded the same academic credit for their prior learning, whether gained in the armed forces or in the workplace (remember the thirty-six million folks with some college and no degree?). Awarding of prior learning assessment credit (known as PLA) results in dramatic degree completion gains, too. Research indicates that students are two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate if a thoughtful PLA credit-granting policy is in place. A return on that transfer investment will result in happy and grateful alumni.

Set Transfer-Specific Goals

Leaders understand the importance of goal-setting and data. Transfer advocates are keenly aware of the power of data to advance their agenda. They also know that strategic enrollment and retention plans that seek to enhance transfer student success must include metrics that are separate from metrics linked to first-year student enrollment and retention (and must also include resources to make these goals a reality). Colleges and universities that fail to articulate transfer-specific goals often inadvertently marginalize the very students they wish to enroll and serve.


Diversifying your strategic enrollment plan to address the needs of transfer students is more than flipping a switch. You must honor the presence of students in a campus culture that may have traditionally recruited only high school graduates. You must create a recruitment and enrollment plan that is strategic rather than tactical, long-term rather than merely opportunistic. Most colleges and universities have significant experience enrolling and retaining traditional undergraduates, and much of that experience will apply in your efforts to recruit and retain transfer students. The key for your success with transfers is to honor their unique needs with the same care and conviction you have as you serve more traditional student constituencies.


After serving as the chief admissions officer for the University of California System, Stephen J. Handel returned to the College Board as a senior strategist in higher education. As UC’s first director of transfer enrollment planning and architect of the College Board’s National Office of Community College Initiatives, Dr. Handel has devoted his career to the advancement of community colleges, the transfer process, and higher education access and equity. He can be reached at

Dr. Eileen Strempel currently serves as the Inaugural Dean of UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Strempel is a nationally recognized champion for transfer students and views superb public education as one of the principal social justice issues of our time. Previously, Strempel was the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Cincinnati, served in a variety of roles at Syracuse University over a seventeen-year span, where she was awarded a Kauffman Foundation eProfessorship and an ACE Fellowship, which she served at Colgate University. Please reach Dr. Strempel at with any questions.


The views and opinions expressed on the NISTS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NISTS. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.


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