News & Events / How Strong Transfer Student Pathways Can Boost Enrollment, Advance Equity, Support Student Success

How Strong Transfer Student Pathways Can Boost Enrollment, Advance Equity, Support Student Success

Published Apr 11, 2023

Campus leaders call transfer pathways the “Best Kept Secret” on college campuses

WASHINGTON, DC  (April 11, 2023)  Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, 1.4 million fewer individuals have enrolled in undergraduate studies in the United States. Community colleges continue to experience the most acute enrollment declines. Nearly 300,000 transfer students – students who begin their studies at a community college and plan to complete a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution — have yet to enroll at that second school and move closer to earning a degree. Students from low-income backgrounds and Black, Latinx and/or Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) students, who more often begin their studies at a community college, transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees at rates far lower than their peers. Transfer pathways – enrollment agreements between two-year and four-year colleges designed to help students earn bachelor’s degrees – are some of the “best kept secrets” on college campuses, but only for students who know about them and can successfully navigate the transition.

Today, in celebration of Community College Month, the Institute for Higher Education Policy in partnership with HCM Strategists released actionable recommendations community colleges, four-year-colleges, and state higher education leaders can use to boost transfer student enrollment, retention and completion.

The recommendations are informed by lessons from TransferBOOST (Bachelor’s Opportunity Options that are Straightforward and Transparent), an IHEP-led initiative to create equitable and affordable transfer pathways to meet the needs of students and today’s economy. Through TransferBOOST, schools sought to ensure community college students could complete a bachelor’s degree in a timely manner by clearly communicating cost and time-to-degree and supporting them through a mapped transfer pathway, guaranteeing that all credits apply to completion.

“Transfer students bring unique lived experiences that enrich campus communities and a determination to earn the credentials that will help them advance their careers,” said Amanda Janice Roberson, IHEP’s Senior Director of Strategic Engagement, Planning, and Operations and co-author of the new recommendations. “Our colleges and universities have much to gain by enrolling and supporting more transfer students. We created TransferBOOST to help institutions approach transfer challenges through an equity-lens, fortify transfer pathways and help more transfer students become transfer graduates.”

Beginning in 2021, twenty-four postsecondary institutions in Arizona, Illinois and Virginia joined TransferBOOST to address challenges with transfer student recruitment and pathways to degree completion. Institutions within each state partnered to better reach students with simple, clear messaging about affordable transfer pathways. They analyzed the return on investment of improving affordability for transfer students, and examined transfer policies and practices to ensure they meet the needs of today’s students, most of whom work full- or part-time, and many also balance their studies with caring for children or other loved ones.

Through TransferBOOST the institutions and state leaders learned:

  • Ensuring equitable student transfer outcomes requires consistency and intentionality. Simply setting a goal without consistent interrogation is not enough to ensure equitable outcomes, especially considering that Black, Latinx and/or Hispanic, Indigenous and AANHPI students and students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to begin their studies at community colleges. Good transfer policies are data-informed, student-centered, and equity-driven.
  • Serving transfer students well is an essential enrollment strategy. Institutions must diversify enrollment pipelines to withstand enrollment declines. But beyond tuition revenue, enrolling more transfer students can help diversify a student body by welcoming individuals with additional life experiences and perspectives.
  • Institutions can make transfer pathways affordable and improve their financial stability. Start by understanding the financial challenges students face. Then, fund affordability efforts with sustainable sources including philanthropic and state-funded grants, and new revenue.
  • Schools should jointly communicate about transfer pathways and emphasize benefits. Campus leaders call transfer pathways some of their “best kept secrets.” But students can’t benefit from a secret they know nothing about. Colleges should connect, coordinate, and collaborate to convey total costs and savings for the entire transfer pathway.
  • Strong state and institutional partnerships are critical to stronger transfer pathways. States and institutions make a greater impact when they work together using campus-to-campus data agreements.

“One of the hallmarks of TransferBOOST is for two- and four-year institutions to communicate the benefits of the partnership to students as one seamless pathway. Earning a bachelor’s degree not only provides an opportunity for workforce competitiveness and wage growth – but can bolster enrollments for both institutions,” said Dr. Rachelle Sharpe, Director of Pathways and Economic Mobility with HCM Strategists.

The full recommendations are outlined in three briefs: BOOSTing Student Success Through Equitable and Affordable Transfer Pathways: Lessons Learned for Higher Education Policymakers from the TransferBOOST Initiative; BOOSTing Transfer Pathways through Strategic Finance and Affordability; and BOOSTing Transfer Partnerships to Promote Equitable and Affordable Transfer Pathways.

A Tool to Help Schools Understand the Return on Investment for Transfer Pathways

To help institutions and state partners strengthen transfer pathways, IHEP and HCM Strategists partnered with rpk GROUP to build the  TransferBOOST Affordability Financial Tool. This tool helps colleges and universities evaluate the expenditures and resources needed to build more affordable transfer pathways. The tool also calculates the potential financial return on investment to colleges and universities from increased student enrollment, retention, and completion through transfer, which in turn helps institutions determine the investments they can make to support the equitable success of transfer students.

TransferBOOST is part of ECMC Foundation’s Catalyzing Transfer Initiative, an effort to increase the successful transfer of postsecondary credits and timely bachelor’s degree completion through equity-centered projects.


About the Institute for Higher Education Policy

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, policy, and advocacy organization committed to promoting postsecondary access and success for all students, regardless of race, background, or circumstance. Established in 1993, IHEP provides timely, evidence-based, and student-centered research to inform policy decisions and address our nation’s most pressing education challenges. Visit to learn more about IHEP’s research, leadership, and experts.

About HCM

HCM Strategists (HCM) is an impact-driven public policy and advocacy consulting firm founded in 2008. We believe in the transformative power of education and work-based learning to improve social and economic mobility for communities that have been marginalized or historically underserved. Our work delivers a consequential impact on the national narrative, policy options and leaders responsible for change.