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Understanding Transfer Admissions

April 27, 2010

All of the admissions hysteria in full swing this time of year tends to suggest that nothing could be more decisive in a young person's life than getting in to the right college. What the discussions ignore is that for many of these people (about a third, at least), they will apply and be admitted to another undergraduate college before earning a degree -- as part of the transfer population.

In some parts of the country, it is the norm to transfer. All of that in turn raises the question of how colleges evaluate transfer applicants -- and a study being released today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling tries to illuminate that process.

Not surprisingly, grades in college courses already taken are by far the most important factor in these transfer admissions decisions, according to a survey of admissions officers released by NACAC, and this was true for public and private colleges alike. But in some key respects, private colleges are much more likely than publics to pay attention to factors commonly associated with a first undergraduate admission and with a more individual review -- including test scores, high school quality, personal essays and interviews. In many of these areas, it is only a minority of private colleges that care, but these factors are negligible at most public institutions.

These differences could be important for those guiding students through higher education. While public university systems and community colleges have spent a lot of time talking about the pathways between them, much less is widely understood about transfer to private colleges -- even as increasing numbers of them are reaching out to community college students and others about transfer.

The overall figures suggest that most students who apply to transfer are admitted and most of those who are admitted actually enroll (the figure known as yield). Over all, 64 percent of transfer applicants are admitted -- a little less than those applying for first-time admission (69 percent).

Transfer Selectivity and Yield

  Public Private
Admission Rate 70.2% 62.4%
Yield 65.1% 63.6%

The admission rates (but not the yields) are lower for institutions that are more selective in admitting first-time students.

Asked to identify factors that would make candidates more or less desirable for admission, those evaluating transfer applications were generally neutral, suggesting a focus on individual qualifications. The factor that was most likely to be viewed as "positive" was prior attendance at a highly competitive four-year institution, at 50.0 percent. In contrast, only 39.5 percent viewed earning an associate degree as a positive, as opposed to neutral. The factor most likely to be viewed as negative -- at 10.6 percent of admissions officers -- was a plan to enroll part time.

Where the public/private differences show up is in the factors that admissions officials say have "considerable importance" in admissions, with public institutions focused largely on grades in college generally and grades in transferable courses. Private colleges care about those things, too, but are more likely to care about a range of other factors.

Factors of 'Considerable Importance' in Transfer Admissions Decisions

Factor Public Private
Grade-point average at postsecondary institutions 95.2% 90.8%
Grade-point average in high school 3.7% 14.5%
Grades in transferable courses 72.5% 53.8%
Scores on standardized tests 3.8% 8.5%
Quality of prior postsecondary institutions 7.4% 13.2%
Quality of high school 0.0% 3.8%
Articulation with prior institution 19.5% 9.9%
Essay or writing sample 6.1% 25.5%
Recommendations 0.0% 24.6%
Ability to pay 0.0% 3.4%
Race/ethnicity 2.4% 2.6%
Interview 0.0% 11.1%

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