How to Increase Transfer Student Enrollment: A Playbook for Recruitment Officers

How to increase transfer student enrollment

To combat shrinkage in college-bound high school students, colleges are developing strategies for winning an outsized share of the transfer, online, adult, graduate and international students. In other blog posts, I’ve shared our playbooks for growing undergraduate, adult, graduate, online and international student enrollment. In this blog post, I’ll address strategies for recruiting transfer students.

In growing enrollment for transfer programs for the past 30 years for numerous colleges and universities, we have learned three things: First, students can’t buy your programs or buy-into your college unless they can find you on Google page one or are referred by satisfied peers and friends; Second, you must build incentives, student support and transparency into every aspect of your transfer process; Third, someone on your team must play the role of chief experience officer who optimizes and streamlines the entire transfer student experience.

To succeed, higher education institutions must deploy a unique balance of marketing air-game, boots-on-the-ground game and follow-up contact strategies.


Appraise the college’s situation by immersing yourself in the macro-economic and college data and transfer student psyche:

  1. Be aware of national trends. Know that transfer students account for 13% of undergraduate enrollment, comprised of mainstream and a growing number of under-represented populations including low income backgrounds, black and hispanic students and those from rural community colleges.
  2. Asses your brand. A strong brand platform will also attract right-fit students who will stay and finish their degree.
  3. Evaluate your transfer enrollment data. Identify feeders.
  4. Assess your website and perform an SEO audit from a transfer student perspective. Leads from your website should out-convert the paid leads by 3-folds. Google page 1 is destiny.
  5. Define right-fit students. These are the kind of students you want more of. There might be different definitions of right-fit amongst women, men, military/veterans, working professionals, Hispanics, African Americans, and others.
  6. Understand what your prospects value the most about the institution (brand, program, student experience, career outlook, peers, alumni, faculty thought leadership, etc.).
  7. Acknowledge the psychic battle of hope and doubt. Even though transferring from one institution to another is quite normal, transfer students wrestle with conflicting forces. On one side of this timeless battle, the chariots of hope and ambition gallop forward. On the other side, the demons of doubt rise in them: Am I making the right decision? Will I fit in? Will I make new friends? How will transferring affect my long-term academic and career goals? Will I be able to manage additional costs associated with transferring, such as moving expenses or differences in tuition and fees? Will I be able to keep up? Can I afford it?
  8. Benchmark competitive marketing budgets and allocate proportionately.



The transfer portion of your website is one of the most important touch points for transfer students because it is the #1 lead and application generation tool for transfer students. You’ll be judged and evaluated by its quality and beauty.

  • Feature transfer scholarships.  Due to the high cost of education, offer transfer scholarships as incentives.
  • Show list of community colleges with whom your institution has articulation agreements.  These allow students to seamlessly transfer to your institution after they complete their associate’s degree.
  • Spotlight transfer from community colleges. Reassure prospects that successful coursework completed at a community college is transferable to the your college with a grade requirements spelled out.
  • Outline credit transfer policies.  Reassure prospects that their past education credits will be transferrable to your new institution, with grade requirements clearly spelled out.
  • Offer Work/Life Experience Credit. Consider awarding credit for work/life experiences that have occurred outside a college environment. Consider offering validation exams to prove competence in a subject without having completed the specific coursework.
  • Showcase Military Credits. Present a formalized process for awarding credit for military courses based on the ACE’s Guide for the evaluation for educational experiences in the armed forces. 
  • Highlight Success Stories. Share testimonials and success stories of former transfer students who have thrived at the institution.
  • Invest in high-fidelity academic program pages.  Program pages, what we call “money pages” on a college website, are where many college decisions are made and college preferences are created. Even though the colleges are asking students to pony up fees that are close to the price of expensive cars, it’s rare to find the level of romance and presentation that even economy car companies put into their entry-level model pages. Instead of settling with bland program pages packed with facts, the VPs of Enrollment Marketing must create program pages that romance prospects and their families. They must feature stories of enrolled students, faculty, facilities, studios, and centers of excellence where the students’ minds will be shaped and skills will be developed. They must paint pictures of exciting opportunities that await them after graduation and offer stories of alumni as demonstrable proof of their program’s distinction.
  • Make your website beautiful. Romance prospects. Merchandise hope.
  • Make your website search engine friendly. Inform it with a Keyword Lexicon. Bake best practices in search engine optimization (SEO) into all aspects of it. Ensure that your academic program pages, faculty and the university magazine stories are all ranked on Google page one.
  • Spotlight transfer students, alumni and alumni chapters in the institutional website, brochures, and social media. If students can’t see others like themselves there, they simply won’t show interest. They also rely heavily on word-of-mouth from friends. Craft brand messaging and content that is inclusive of people of different races, socio-economic status, career stages and faiths.
  • Prominently feature institutional reputation points because students use them as short-cuts.
  • Feature proof points of your commitment to various student profiles. For instance, working professionals would like to know that you have the support system in place for them. Similarly, African American and Hispanic students don’t wish to stand out like sore thumbs and want to know if the college has the support infrastructure for them to graduate on time.
  • Create customized admissions, financial aid and scholarships sections for transfer students that address their unique needs.
  • Be prepared to create an transfer admissions microsite. If your design template and CMS constraints don’t let you mirror the website user experience with your target audience, be prepared to create a new admissions microsite.
  • Track website performance.  Carefully track prospect journey and conversion performance. Adjust it until it starts performing optimally.


Search, Social and Media Advertising paid platforms are all powered by algorithms that maximize their own profits with little regard for a marketer’s investments. To offset the algorithm’s greedy tendency, use sensible campaign management techniques to tune, optimize and micro-manage various aspects of the campaigns.

  •  Run geo-fencing campaigns around community colleges and military bases.
  • Deploy new paid advertising methodologies based on what the right-fit students value, micro-segments, look-alikes, A/B testing, geo-targeting, machine learning, big-data algorithms and affinity groups.
  • Use the latest best practices to create high-converting digital ad creative. Run A/B tests to feed the champs and starve the chumps.
  • Direct prospects to brand-infused, high-fidelity, story landing pages. Infuse brand, ROI, cogent argument construction, differentiators, calls-to-action, ROI stats and facts into the creative. Again, run A/B tests with copy and images to feed the winners and starve the losers.
  • Choose the ad platforms wisely. Not all paid channels perform equally. Google generates solid leads for transfer inquiries. Transfer students also convert well on Facebook/Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Tik Tok.
  • Carefully track prospect journey and campaign performance so you can determine the right keywords, the right messaging, the right platforms, and the right landing pages. More importantly, so you can answer the pivotal question: where should you invest your precious marketing dollars in the next 12 months.
  • Use sensible campaign management techniques such as budget optimization, bid management, keyword management, audience optimization and judicious management of algorithmic recommendations.


Mobilize search engine optimization (SEO) and your content marketing engine to dominate search engines. Remember four things.

First, research shows that when colleges “get found” via organic Google page one results, prospects trust them more. Google page one organic results command over 90% of click share, and generate close to two-thirds of inquiries. Organic inquiries tend to form long-term relationships with the universities and they tend to melt away at a reduced rate. 

Second, leads generated from Google organic rankings tend to be like-minded and outperform paid advertising leads by three-folds.

Third, the best prospects prefer to “discover” the college of their choice through “accidental finds” on Google page one and word-of-mouth on social media.

Fourth, SEO marketing is a long game. It takes several months to achieve local and regional rankings, and often a year or more to achieve national and international rankings.

In light of these, we recommend that the college:

  • Develop smart foundational SEO. Establish a multi-year rankings plan for securing Google/Bing page one rankings.
  • Start by creating a Keyword Lexicon with keyword clusters, frequently asked questions, and natural language queries. Ensure it include keyword buckets for academic programs, thought leadership, brand, geographic, decisioning, and reputation. Also ensure that the keywords span the entire student decision journey, all the way from awareness, to consideration, to decision and beyond.
  • Optimize all your academic program pages. Ensure that the information that appears on search engine results is persuasive, aspirational and inviting.
  • Because rankings weaken over time and search engines reward fresh content, marketers must create a continuous stream of high quality, trusted and relevant content (such as articles, blog posts, videos, infographics, white papers, thought leadership articles, social posts, quizzes, games, etc.) and ignite it via promotion and conversation-starters to encourage peer-to-peer sharing. We call this the inverted admissions funnel strategy, which attracts and converts like-minded prospects.
  • Monitor your search engine rankings and traffic to identify which pieces of content are performing well and adjust your emphasis accordingly.


  • Email marketing is most effective with house lists, and as joint marketing campaign with partner community colleges; purchased lists convert poorly. Carefully track prospect journey and campaign performance.


Instead of making a shortlist of colleges on their own, transfer students are heavily influenced by the opinions of their social network of peers, friends and families. This creates a stereophonic set of messages that surround and engage a transfer prospect with what’s distinctive about a college. Befriend and fuel influencers.


  • Although colleges have an ambivalent relationship with college rankings, prospective students tend to gravitate towards the best ranked colleges they can afford to attend. Smart colleges routinely influence these ratings by creating committees that proactively affect ranking factors such as peer perception, student satisfaction, student placement rates, and salary data.

Each of these paid, earned and owned media strategies are good alone, but better together.



  1. Designate Transfer Counselors: Designate transfer specialists and counselors who can hand-hold prospects through the transfer process.
  2. Recruit Transfer Student Ambassadors: Ask them to share their positive experiences and insights with their friends. Ask them to welcome new students.
  3. Streamline Transfer Processes: Simply the application and credit transfer processes. Ensure that your policies are clear, transparent and accessible.
  4. Facilitate Student Visits and Tours: College visits are moments of truth. Face-to-face interactions during college visits, alumni outreach, and admitted student days improve the number of high-quality leads and admissions yield.  Students remember a college that reaches out to them in a timely, caring, personal and organized manner. Successful colleges work very hard in casting and directing volunteers, tour guides, work study and junior staff — ensuring the talking points, presentations, touch points and tour details are all curated and orchestrated perfectly. God is in the details.
  5. Partner with Community Colleges: Establish strong relationships with community colleges, formalizing them into articulation agreements. Create joint programs, dual admission agreements, and pathway programs to make the transition to your institution more attractive and straightforward.
  6. Transfer Student Support Services: Develop robust support services for transfer students, including mentorship programs, transfer student clubs, and dedicated spaces where transfer students can connect and received support.
  7. Cultivate Strong Relationship with Surrounding Communities: Become known as the transfer-friendly institution in your region. The goodwill generated will pay off handsomely.



All your marketing investments will be wasted unless you build a solid follow-up system for inquiries and applications.

  1. Follow-up with inquiries on a timely basis. Respond quickly. Keep it human. Recruit friends and colleagues to become secret shoppers for your university — and ask them about their experience.
  2. Deploy a personalized contact strategy for every stage of the admissions funnel to maximize yield. Know what prospects and influencers need at every stage of the admissions funnel, and meet their needs. Pay as much attention to admission yield communications and follow-up processes as you do to lead-generation and lead-nurturing communications. Offset reduced contact with stealth applicants by stepping up the game at each touch point. 
  3. Deploy a unique contact strategy for applications to prevent melt.  The application is the new lead. Treat admitted students with the same care as you treat leads. Deploy drip campaigns, accepted student days, early orientation, and welcome reception.

Remember two things. First, a broken inquiry and application follow-up process reflects poorly on the entire brand. Second, don’t let automation get in the way of personalized and timely follow-up because there are no short-cuts for old-fashioned, human-centered relationship building.

If you are seeking an transfer enrollment marketing agency to grow your transfer enrollment, consider partnering with us.