Life goals at a discount? The manipulation of transfer students

Time, once again, to rant about how colleges and universities busy themselves trying to manipulate you.

Transfer students are a hot commodity in admissions. Since Mason is one of the most popular transfer destinations in the U.S., I may be even more disturbed by misinformation about transferring schools than I am about the usual admissions confusion. A recent article intended for college admissions officers reminded me of this pet peeve.

Jason Bakker is a most excellent college marketing guru. In a recent article on, however, he offers help with responding to the “increase” in potential transfer students, asserting that what transfer students want most is help achieving their “life goals,” and therefore, colleges should market themselves to that concept. Instead of trying to prove that point, Jason offers some examples of tuition discounts. He seems to feel the main reason students transfer is to get a cheaper education. This could lead colleges to believe that the best way to convince you to transfer schools is to offer you a better financial deal. No offense to Jason, but that seems like a big steaming pile of nonsense.
Community college or other transfer students are no more prone to respond to value or discount pitches than any other group of prospective students. In fact, claiming to be “cheaper” can just as easily translate to impressions of lower quality rather than higher value. This may seem insane, but there is far more evidence that raising cost increases perceived value and little evidence that lowering tuition provides comparable benefit. That’s how colleges and universities get into that whole dirty science of how little they can discount your tuition and still get you to enroll – otherwise they’d all just lower their price, and transfer students would be flocking to the least expensive schools.
As for Jason’s initial assertion that what transfer students want most is help with life goals (he means making more money), colleges have been trying lay stake to that claim for years. Of course, the data says that your income level after college has nothing to do with what college you attend, but don’t let that stop you savvy (evil) marketers!
What clearly works with transfers (and every other market segment) are assertions of quality. Strangely, we tie quality to exclusivity –schools that are hard to get into are more likely to be labeled as high quality. That impression (linked to hints of future income) is one successful way to reach out to recruit transfer students, and the cost issue can have an inverse relationship to that effort. In simple terms, colleges and universities have found that being more expensive makes it easier to claim higher quality. It even raises school standing in the rankings.
There is a better, even less evil, way to recruit transfer students. Far more than freshmen, transfer students are concerned with convenience and expedience. Access to online courses, evening and weekend classes, acceptance of credit, and general accommodation and assimilation of transfer students are HUGE issues, often far outweighing (although also influencing through time to degree) cost of attendance. Be seeing you.


2 Responses

  1. Andrew, What I was trying to get across in my article was that the economy has caused some students (and parents) to consider trading down to a college that might not be their first choice in an effort to save some out-of-pocket college costs. What I had hoped to articulate was that “Quality” education, and achieving life-goals is not just reserved for schools with high tuition or a private label. Schools that can promote quality with affordability can win some transfer students at a time when many are on the move.

    • Thanks, Jason! Always a pleasure to have a VIP visitor!
      I think the key in your response is “consider” trading down – the evidence that we’ve seen of actual college choice is that students did not actually shift all that much. You can see that if you look at overall enrollments by price, which so far doesn’t show much adjustment (beyond the expected increase in students based on the number graduating from high school). It’s still a bit early, since many schools won’t release official enrollment for weeks – but my intel says that shifts were all over the map, and had a lot more to do with the strength of the instiutional relationship to admitted students (and likely to the amount of discount, but we’ll NEVER get that data) than to any trend in students switching to lower cost options. I’m told (confidentially – I have spies everywhere) that some of the priciest privates are way up in enrollment, while some of the high quality reasonably priced publics were stretching to hit their targets (digging WAY down in their waitlists). Of course Mason exceeded our targets AND raised standards 😀
      Anyhow, back to transfers. Of course, the idea of quality with affordability makes sense, but in the end of the day it’s rare that value propositions shift as much enrollment as “prestige”. A large, long term unanswered question is whether that pattern that has held true for so long in admissions will be maintained with transfer students, particularly those from various ethnic backgrounds who are the first generation in their family to be college bound. Referring back to your recent article on Hispanic and Latino enrollment, there is a lot of discussion about whether the value proposition will be more effective particularly targeted to the Hispanic and Latino population. This was a very popular theory in the late 70’s and early 90’s regarding the African American population – proved to be spectacularly mistaken.
      For those of you still awake – this is the kind of thing we admissions officers sit around and debate until the wee hours – kind of like mad scientists hatching their next evil scheme to take over the world…but with less cackling.

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