Governance and Execution 8 Minute Read

The Growing Population of Transfer Students and How to Serve Them

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According to Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences, 85% of applicants to online programs expect to transfer at least some credit toward their degree upon admission (Magda & Aslanian, 2018). In addition, at least 38% will expect to transfer in at the sophomore level or above. That means that institutions must be prepared not only to process transfer credits quickly but also to place these students in the appropriate courses upon admission.

Administrators and program managers can serve this valuable student population by setting policies and building academic programs that appeal to transfer students and help them continue their journey toward a degree and career advancement. This article discusses how to attract and retain transfer students in two key areas: the enrollment process and program maps.


The Online College Students report shows that online undergraduates tend to apply to more than one institution and make enrollment decisions quickly. As we’ll see, students’ ability to transfer credits is a big part of their enrollment decision, so it’s essential to have policies in place that anticipate the needs of transfer students. Below are three examples of such policies.

Approve unofficial transcript evaluations within 72 hours.

An overwhelming majority of students (71%) expect to know how much of their credit will transfer to the new program within at least two weeks of applying to the institution (Magda & Aslanian, 2018). Furthermore, 29% expect to know before applying at all. Students contact and apply to an average of two or three schools, and nearly two thirds of them make attendance decisions within four weeks of starting their research.

Given these statistics, it’s crucial to have systems in place to evaluate and accept transfer credits quickly, and to be able to direct students to appropriate courses to continue their education where they left off at other institutions. Having a rapid turnaround time will differentiate your institution as being responsive to students’ needs, and will also give students the information they need to make an educated decision even in a short time frame.

Create a process for accepting nontraditional credits.

Not all transfer credits will come from institutions accredited by the Council from Higher Education Accreditation. According to the Online College Students report, about one third of incoming students bring in credits that they earned from two-year colleges, military experience, prior learning assessments (PLA), and the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). In addition, another third of online students are unsure if they can take advantage of such credits.

If your institution hasn’t already, take some time to decide what types of nontraditional credits you’ll accept and how they’ll function in different degree programs. Having clear guidelines laid out on your website will help potential students understand how they can translate their life and work experience into academic credit—an attractive option for many online students.

Define pathways to completion for common transfer scenarios.

Once students are admitted to a program, institutions should ensure that they can quickly begin taking courses and continue to do so with few barriers such as program sequencing or availability of courses. In our experience working with dozens of online universities, one of the primary causes of students exiting a program before completion or going on leave of absence is the inability of a program’s structure or current resources to provide a consistent path forward. Therefore, it’s in your institution’s best interest to maximize the number of courses transfer students can take through practices such as establishing program maps that clearly lay out course sequences and allowing courses to fulfill multiple degree requirements. The next section will go into detail about how to implement these practices at your institution.

Program Maps

In an ideal world, an institution would have multiple paths to completion for each program—one for freshmen and another targeted at transferring juniors. The freshmen track would provide lower level courses (along with general education credits) for freshmen and sophomores to take, and the junior track would provide upper level courses for the 23% of transfer students who bring in 60 credits or more (Magda & Aslanian, 2018). The end result would be that different students would complete underclassman courses, upperclassman courses, and general education requirements at the same time so that the courses folded together elegantly to create a whole program.

However, especially for smaller or newer online programs, this proposition is difficult due to the costs and time required to develop new online courses. Your institution simply may not have the courses available to create multiple tracks.

If you’re just starting to build a new program, it may be tempting to build freshman- and sophomore-level classes first to capture new students, and then build upperclassman courses as the first cohort advances. However, knowing that transfer students might make up a large part of your new enrollments, you might consider an alternative approach to building programs.

In this new model (below), your institution would focus on building (a) required general education courses and (b) upperclassman courses that transfer students may take. Then, as need arises, you would build freshman- and sophomore-level courses until the program is completed. That way, new students can enroll in general education courses while transfer students take upperclassman courses until you’ve had time to build out the rest of the program to include freshman and sophomore courses.

Regardless of whether your institution is just starting out online or already has a whole suite of courses, the following three tips will help you maximize your program maps for transfer students.

Establish program maps and unified policies for all online programs.

The most important tool you can use to help find appropriate entry points and course sequences for transfer students is a program map. Therefore, it’s essential to make sure each program has up-to-date information on learning outcomes, prerequisites, sequences, and potential transfer opportunities. For more on how to create a program map, check out our article on the topic. This bird’s eye view on your programs’ paths to completion will be invaluable as you plan course development and hire instructors.

In addition, make sure your general education and prerequisite policies are simple and unified across all programs. That way, you’ll provide students with more options for classes to complete their degrees, thus lessening the risk that students will drop out because they can’t find a course to take in their major.

Allow courses to serve multiple purposes.

Ideally, you should have a core group of courses that all students can take regardless of program or what credits they have earned previously. General education courses are the most obvious example of this idea. Streamlining general education requirements across programs will create a large population of potential enrollments for each course.

In addition, try to minimize the necessity of taking specific courses to complete programs. For example, you could allow an accounting course to fulfill a math requirement for a social sciences major. Cross-listing courses across majors like this will maximize the utility of each of your online courses, thus increasing enrollment opportunities and encouraging flexibility so students don’t have any breaks in their programs while waiting for the institution to offer certain courses.

Build new programs incrementally.

It can be difficult to create and roll out new programs. Should you spend the money and manpower to build an entire program before launching it, or should you admit students as you build, hoping your development schedule can keep up with their enrollment needs?

You can mitigate some of these challenges by taking a more incremental approach. For example, you could roll out a few courses early and offer them as electives for other programs. Then, as you accumulate more courses, you can create a concentration attached to another major before offering the subject as its own major.

For example, if your end goal is to offer a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, you could start by creating an elective in early childhood literature, then build up to offering an early childhood concentration on an existing education degree, and finally roll out a standalone early childhood education degree.


One of the core challenges for institutions entering the online education market is developing programs that provide the highest level of access to all students who might enroll, especially given the diverse range of transfer credits and entry points for students. However, institutions don’t have to wait until they’ve built a slew of courses to enroll transfer students. Rather, you can take an incremental approach, first by establishing transfer-friendly enrollment processes and then by building program maps that invite all students to jump in at different points and persist until they graduate. Over time, you’ll develop a simple, coherent sequence of courses that serves all your students, whether they’re just starting or coming to you to get across the finish line.


Magda, A. J., & Aslanian, C. B. (2018). Online college students 2018: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

Posted November 12, 2018
Author Nate Ackerly and Jennifer Bell