Secret Shopping Illuminates what it’s like to be a Prospective Transfer Student

Estimated read time –  6 minutes

Student Considering College Options.

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This secret shopping was performed in collaboration with Phi Theta Kappa to both see how institutions recruit prospective transfer students as well as how they would address the additional data point of knowing that the student had achieved academic success at their community college. Starting in January and running through early August contacts were logged and mail sorted. Fifty institutions received the contact information and outreach was tracked as it came in. No emails or texts were opened to avoid changing status in the institution’s CRM.

The Results

While not entirely surprising, it was disappointing that 11 institutions never tried to communicate. While I was not an inquiry, at which point a quick response is expected, these are still students who institutions purchase to recruit. Of those who did reach out, a third of them also sent over 10 contacts. For someone who had never requested information, that felt excessive. 

In a reversal from past undergraduate inquiry secret shopping, public institutions sent more contacts than private institutions. When it came to mail, twelve of the thirteen pieces came from private institutions. Four of the five texts were also from private institutions. So even though public institutions sent more contacts, they relied almost exclusively on email. If students are not responding to email there should be one of two pivots made: either the emails aren’t reaching them and another medium should be used to try to engage them or the prospect isn’t interested and they don’t need more email. Even though public institutions sent more contacts, they did so in less time as well.

The quality of emails and relevance is the biggest opportunity to improve. I was a prospective student interested in biology and would be coming in with an Associate degree. With this information, there is plenty to tailor a comm flow to speak to someone who is coming in more focused and who only needs to know why they should consider your institution and more about your major. Only one college (that’s not a typo) sent information about their biology program. A transfer student, especially one with an Associate degree, should be receiving a heavy mix of major-specific information and outcomes.

Knowing that I was a Phi Theta Kappa student also indicates that I have done well academically and have support as well. Unfortunately, only 14 mentioned the Phi Theta Kappa status and what that means at their institution. Six colleges, who sent information, never even spoke to being a transfer student and how that process differs. While that might not seem like very many, that accounts for 15% of those who sent information. Three institutions also sent emails more than once per day, which could have been an issue with their CRM or they sent a one-off email that happened to go the same day as a nurture campaign email. There was also one instance of a school encouraging me to study abroad and touting travel programs in an email that was sent in April. This should have been shut off during COVID, the timing was off for that language.

The cadence of outreach also felt off for a prospect. Those who did reach out typically did so with 1-2 attempts in the first week and fewer than 1 per week during the first 30 days, there were some who reached out every other day (at least) in the first week and multiple times per week for the first 30 days. As a prospect, there isn’t the urgency to respond that there is for someone who reaches out as an inquiry or applicant. These are students who need nurtured and their interest and trust has to be earned. They may never have heard of your school, and reaching out every other day telling them to apply is not hitting that mark.

For all but four colleges the first outreach was by email. Two sent a text first and two sent a postcard. The overwhelming majority of those were “proposing on the first date” as well, their initial message was to apply rather than to talk about themselves and let me get to know them and provide an opportunity for me to share more about myself. For an inquiry, that might be fine. But again it’s too forward for a prospect and missed the “why.” Why should they care?

Actionable Insights

The first thing that should be done is to make sure that your comm flow is differentiated by student type. Transfer students should receive information relevant to their needs and student journey. Prospects should also receive different information than inquiries, they may not have heard of your institution and need convincing as to why they should consider you. Most emails simply told me that I should apply or visit, but with little information as to why and what truly makes your institution different.

Spreading out information and varying the media can improve your outcomes as well. Emailing a prospective student multiple times per week for months, despite their lack of engagement, is merely spam. If they do not respond to varied messages in emails then try a postcard, text, or call. Use digital remarketing to test their engagement with that media. If they still have not responded then it’s either the wrong message or they just aren’t interested. Focus on those who are instead.

If you know the major interest or another important data point, such as their extracurricular activities or special status of some kind, that should be recognized in the comm flow. Modern CRMs can pull in fields and customize the email content in an almost endless variety of ways. There’s almost no excuse not to be hyper-relevant. Especially with a transfer student, who has already invested time in a major, there is no reason not to make academics the primary focus in your communications.

Full Results Table


Will Patch

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.

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