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It’s not hard to imagine several enrollment and registrar offices around the country patting themselves on the back after reading the details of the 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 by based on the results.

For instance, when 60 percent of transfer students reply they understand and accept the reasons why some of their credits didn’t transfer, it shows that, while not a perfect process, universities are putting in the work to make sure students understand the logic behind their decisions. It’s also encouraging to read that 74 percent of students had their credits apply to general education requirements, while 41 percent had their credits apply directly to their major.

Students are moving forward, enrollment targets are being hit and the customer feedback on the process seems favorable. Sure, there is room for improvement, but you can understand why many might feel encouraged by these results. It should also come as no surprise 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 result in their ability to provide automatic transfer credit updates -- make it very appealing to the time-sensitive prospective transfer student.

However, if you're at a small to midsize private university or college, what should catch your attention in the details of the survey is this: of those seeking to transfer to private institutions, nearly a third of those surveyed "were more likely to have to request an evaluation.”

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

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

  1. Most private (and some public) universities are currently undergoing various levels of forced innovation with either a full or hybrid style of online content delivery.
  2. Many student online experiences are going to be underwhelming, if not entirely awful, and frustrating for the attention-strained college student.

This will become quickly apparent as faculty figure out technology and platform issues, adjusted delivery styles, methodologies, evaluations, etc. And this frustration is most certainly going to drive students to go searching for alternative options in the semesters to come, which will create even more transfer opportunities in all postsecondary markets.

If your school is one where prospective students need to request transcript evaluations and then wait for days (or weeks) for the response from faculty, you should take notice. While your faculty are working in new environments and communicating with asynchronous students, do you honestly think in the next semester or two they will become competitively efficient at evaluating transcripts and syllabi? Or maybe your school has transfer evaluators who have accepted a "good enough" mentality, which means it could take one, two, three weeks to get an evaluation back to the transfer-seeking student. Good enough got to where you're at, but it probably won't get you to where you need to be in the semesters to come. If either of these is a part of your "transfer-friendly" process, you should be concerned, because the surging transfer market is about to move right past your campus.

How Can Small Private Universities Get More Competitive?

First, and most importantly, an internal heart-to-heart needs to happen with your faculty leadership, registrar's office and enrollment management. While you must protect your university brand and academic integrity, there might need to be some pride swallowing that needs to occur, too. You're most likely not as operationally efficient as you could be, and/or your institution could be mired in bureaucratic processes impacting response times back to prospective students. There is no magic pill to make this all go smoothly overnight. Feathers will get ruffled, people could walk away after the meeting sucking on their teeth and doubting the need for change, but you have to know this will only make you better. Maybe you just initially identify process steps or programs where you could make some initial (and accountable) adjustments to make the evaluation process more fluid for transfer students. If you can't get honest and real at this point, what follows next won't do you much good.

Next, your college website needs to have webpages with transparent transfer credit processes that are easy to follow and let the student know when to expect evaluation feedback. If you can't get evaluations done in real or near real time, then push your institution to commit to a legitimate stretch goal. As an example, if your average evaluation time is 10 business days, then when you update your webpages, make your commitment forward-facing to the student: all completed evaluations will be sent in two business days. Your customers want to know what to expect, and owning your standard will get their attention. Will it be perfect? Probably not in the beginning, but owning your commitments and getting smarter every day will get your evaluation teams there faster as they own their processes. Remember: traditional transfer students are time-crunched and ready to make decisions. Few will want or care about your well-crafted value-proposition statements and shiny new videos. After all, they have most likely already been secret shopping you -- they're just wanting some clear answers up front: Do you have my program? Will you take my transfer credits? What is the process for submission, and how long will it take to get them evaluated?

Get them these answers promptly, and you're in the race. If your website can't deliver that, take a seat in the stands. Being "transfer friendly" is like being Canadian in a mosh pit: you're going to be saying "Sorry" a lot and left on the floor as the crowd rushes over you. You must accept that your school is going to need to get more competitive.

If process overhauls and website changes are too big a barrier at the moment, then you need to be adding value to your evaluation process. As the report indicates, when transfer students were asked how universities could improve their operations, "Students listed better academic advising as a top need, as well as better course scheduling and better advising in high school for dual-enrollment or AP classes." Maybe you're not ready to be operationally agile enough to turn around evaluations in one to two business days, and that's OK. Work on it and drive to be more responsive as soon as possible, but you can still shine by adding credible, thoughtful academic advisement. At least then, the value of speaking with an academic adviser or a program faculty member makes sense and creates patience in the process with the customer.

While it might seem odd to be grateful for the impacts of a pandemic on an industry like ours, we should all be excited at the opportunities it's creating. Now is the time when small private universities can use their agility to adapt faster to market changes by innovating and being competitive in ways like we have never done so before. If your school isn't ready to get focused on the new transfer wave that is coming, the large public institutions will happily continue to absorb market share from us all.

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