Private colleges need to take transfer seriously

It’s not hard to imagine several enrollment and registrar offices across the country congratulating themselves after reading the details of recent survey results provided by the American Council on Education and the American Association of Collegiate. Registrars and Admissions Officers. After all, there is a lot to be encouraged based on results.

For example, when 60% of transfer students respond that they understand and accept the reasons why some of their credits were not transferred, it shows that, although it is not a perfect process, universities strive to ensure that students understand the logic behind their decisions. It is also encouraging to read that 74% of students had their credits applied to general education requirements, while 41% had their credits applied directly to their major.

Students are progressing, enrollment goals are being met, and customer feedback on the process seems favorable. Of course, there is room for improvement, but you can understand why many might feel encouraged by these results. It should also come as no surprise that public universities shine in the details of this survey. Their dual enrollment programs with public high schools, established articulation agreements, and pipeline programs with local community colleges—all of which translate into their ability to provide automatic transfer credit updates—make it very attractive to future time-sensitive transfer students.

However, if you are at a small or medium-sized private university or college, here is what should catch your eye in the details of the survey: Among those seeking to transfer to private institutions, almost a third of respondents “were more likely to request an assessment.

If you’re looking for the canary bobbing in the coal mine, those last nine words were it.

While none of us have a crystal ball to see through the impacts post-COVID-19, there are two things we can be sure of:

  1. Most private (and some public) universities are currently experiencing varying levels of forced innovation with a full or hybrid style of delivering content online.
  2. Many online student experiences are going to be disappointing, if not downright awful, and frustrating for the attention-starved student.

This will quickly become apparent as professors learn about technology and platform issues, adjusted delivery styles, methodologies, assessments, and more. And this frustration will most certainly drive students to look for alternative options in future semesters, which will create even more transfer opportunities in all post-secondary markets.

If your school is a school where prospective students have to request transcript evaluations and then wait days (or weeks) for faculty to respond, you should take note. As your faculty work in new environments and communicate with asynchronous students, do you honestly think that over the next semester or two they will become competitive in evaluating transcripts and programs? Or maybe your school has transfer assessors who have accepted a “good enough” mentality, which means it can take one, two, three weeks to send an assessment back to the student looking to transfer. Pretty much got to where you are, but it probably won’t get you where you need to be in future semesters. If any of these are part of your “transfer friendly” process, you should be concerned, because the booming transfer market is about to pass right past your campus.

How can small private universities become more competitive?

First, and most importantly, an internal dialogue needs to take place with your faculty leadership, registrar’s office, and enrollment management. While you need to protect your university’s brand and your academic integrity, you may also need to swallow pride. You are probably not as operationally efficient as you could be, and/or your institution could be bogged down in bureaucratic processes impacting response times to prospective students. There is no magic pill to make everything go well overnight. Feathers will be ruffled, people might walk away after the meeting sucking their teeth and doubting the need to change, but you should know that it will only make you better. Perhaps you have just initially identified process steps or programs where you could make some initial (and responsible) adjustments to make the assessment process smoother for transfer students. If you can’t be honest and real at this point, what follows won’t do you much good.

Next, your college website should have web pages with transparent credit transfer processes that are easy to follow and let the student know when to expect assessment feedback. If you can’t perform real-time or near-real-time assessments, push your institution to commit to a legitimate stretch goal. For example, if your average assessment time is 10 business days, then when you update your web pages, commit to facing the student: all completed assessments will be sent within two business days. Your customers want to know what to expect, and owning your switchboard will grab their attention. Will it be perfect? Probably not at first, but making your commitments and getting smarter every day will get your assessment teams there faster as they master their processes. Remember: traditional transfer students are pressed for time and ready to make decisions. Few people will want or care about your well-crafted value proposition statements and shiny new videos. After all, they’ve probably done some secret shopping for you before — they just want clear answers in advance: Do you have my schedule? Do you want to take my transfer credits? What is the submission process and how long will it take to get them evaluated?

Get them those answers fast and you’re in the running. If your website can’t offer that, take a seat in the bleachers. Being “transfer friendly” is like being Canadian in a mosh pit: you’ll often say “Sorry” and stay on the floor as the crowd rushes towards you. You must accept that your school will have to become more competitive.

If process reviews and website changes are too big a hurdle right now, you need to add value to your assessment process. As the report states, when transfer students were asked how universities could improve their operations, “students identified better academic advising as a major need, along with better course planning and better guidance in high school for dual enrollment or AP classes”. Maybe you’re not ready to be operationally nimble enough to complete assessments in one or two business days, and that’s okay. Work on it and strive to be more responsive as soon as possible, but you can still shine by adding credible and thoughtful academic advice. At least then, the value of speaking with an academic advisor or program faculty member makes sense and builds patience in the process with the client.

While it may seem strange to be grateful for the impacts of a pandemic on an industry like ours, we should all be excited about the opportunities it creates. Now is the time when small private universities can use their agility to adapt more quickly to market changes by innovating and being competitive like we never have before. If your school is not ready to focus on the new wave of transfers that is coming, the big public institutions will happily continue to suck market share from us all.

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