The Ivy Coach Daily

March 18, 2023

Why Top Colleges Like Transfer Students

This is a view of Yale University's campus at sunset.
America’s top colleges admit a batch of transfer students each year (photo credit: Namkota).

Originally Published on December 4, 2018:

Why do highly selective colleges seek to admit a round of transfer students each year? Beyond the additional application dollars each school collects from the transfer round of admissions, America’s elite colleges recognize that transfer students round out their student bodies. In a sense, they’re the finishing touch.

What Do Universities Look for in Transfer Students?

America’s elite colleges seek to admit students with different profiles from the typical applicants out of high school. The applicant may be a non-traditional student with several years of work experience. The applicant may be a veteran of America’s military. The applicant may be a first-generation college student from a low-income family. These students all boost the diversity of the student body.

Is It Harder to Get Into College As a Transfer Student?

At most highly selective universities, the transfer admission rate is lower than the overall admission rate for high school applicants. There are, however, exceptions. Among the Ivy League schools, as delineated below for the Class of 2026, the transfer admission rate exceeds the overall acceptance rate for non-transfers at Cornell University, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College.

Ivy League SchoolOverall Acceptance Rate (Non-Transfers)Transfer Admission Rate
Brown University5%4.3%
Cornell University8.7%15.7%
Columbia College and Columbia Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and Columbia School of General Studies3.73% (CC and SEAS) and 27.8% (SGS)14.7% (CC and SEAS) and 57.9% (SGS)
Dartmouth College6.24%9.9%
Harvard University3.19%0.8%
University of Pennsylvania5.9%4.6%
Princeton University4.38%1.3%
Yale University4.47%0.8%

Reasons Why Colleges Love Transfer Students

Two key reasons underlie why colleges love transfer students:

Transfer students often significantly contribute to a university’s diversity.

With the fate of Affirmative Action to be decided by the nation’s Supreme Court in late 2023, elite colleges may seek to admit even more transfers if considering race in college admissions decision-making is outlawed.

Transfer students are data ghosts.

Their grades and scores are not included in the data submitted to US News & World Report for the publication’s annual all-important ranking. So colleges have more leeway to admit the students they want in the transfer round, unburdened by hard numbers.

In fact, large swaths of transfer students to elite universities often fall into three categories:

Of course, veterans applying to elite universities often hail from community colleges. Many are also from low-income families. It could thus be a combination of two or all three categories.

Veterans in the Transfer Round

In the transfer round, highly selective colleges can offer admission to a young man who served his country in uniform gallantly overseas without worrying that his SAT score from four years ago — back when he was in high school — will adversely impact the school’s ranking.

Whereas that score would have likely eliminated his chances of admission just four years before, it’s less important in the transfer round. After all, this student’s life experiences and contributions to our nation’s security supersede how he performed on a test as a high schooler.

Community College Students in the Transfer Round

Elite universities also covet community college standouts in the transfer round. As reported Elissa Nadworny for NPR in a piece about top colleges seeking diversity in the transfer round, “Private colleges across the county have embraced this method: Amherst College in Massachusetts hosts job fairs and open houses for community college students; the University of Southern California has one of the largest transfer programs among elite schools, with about 1,500 students getting slots each year.”

The backgrounds of community college students, invariably, tend to be more diverse than many four-year colleges. As Nadworny writes, “Community colleges enroll 41 percent of all U.S. undergraduates. 56 percent of Native American undergrads are enrolled in community colleges. 52 percent of Hispanic undergrads are enrolled in community colleges. 43 percent of African American undergrads are enrolled in community colleges.”

Low-Income Students in the Transfer Round

Elite universities don’t only covet racial diversity for their student bodies. They also crave socio-economic diversity. When many young people attend local four-year colleges, or community colleges, because of the high cost of tuition at elite universities across the nation, the transfer round offers these students a second chance to get into top schools that are highly motivated to provide generous financial aid offers.

In a study from a few years back on high-achieving students transferring from community colleges by Jennifer Glynn for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the author wrote, “Low-income students are three times as likely to start at a community college as high-income students.” And as this same organization found in a 2022 study, high-achieving community college transfers are highly likely to succeed at four-year institutions.

Top Colleges Are Right to Admit These Transfer Students

We at Ivy Coach are glad that America’s elite universities covet these underrepresented groups in the transfer round of admissions. And we’re pleased that US News & World Report considers transfer students as data ghosts, so their grades and test scores from high school don’t put a ceiling on their offers of admission.

It allows colleges to admit students with their hearts and minds without paying as careful attention to students’ numbers. Many American veterans, community college students, and students from low-income families — or students who are a combination of these groups — deserve admission to these elite schools. The transfer admissions round makes that possible, and we hope more of our nation’s top universities continue this trend in the years to come.

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