Jun 15, 2015


How to Reach Transfer Students and Why It Matters

Steve Lutz addresses one of the toughest tasks in college ministry – reaching transfer students.

Are you serving many transfer students? For some of us, this is a fairly common occurrence. (That doesn’t mean we do it well, however). For others of us, they may be an afterthought or even invisible. If reaching transfers hasn’t been common for you, larger trends suggest it will be.

This is significant, because transfer students present some challenges:

  1. They’re usually more disconnected than students who arrive as freshman. They never have that mass-bonding experience of freshman year, where hordes of students discover college life together.
  2. Because they’re more disconnected, they tend to form weak ties on campus, while maintaining strong ties at home. They go home often and miss weekend activities that would help them connect with others…and the disconnected cycle perpetuates itself.
  3. In many cases, they’re only around for 2, maybe 3 years.
  4. They often have family, social, financial, and academic issues that caused them to transfer in the first place.
  5. They have missed the first year or two of whatever it is your ministry does with new students.

Frankly, I know many ministries regard these students as square pegs who just don’t fit what they want to do. They view these challenges as liabilities. In the economy of ministry, transfers can be seen as low-yield investments of time and energy.

I’ve argued elsewhere that collegiate ministry can’t continue to operate in the old paradigm of how BIG and AWESOME our ministries are in the here and now; but that our focus must be on equipping students for lifelong faithfulness. I believe we shouldn’t relegate transfer students to a second-class status. In fact, with eyes of faith, the alleged liabilities can become opportunities:

  1. Their disconnectedness causes them to search for connection, which we can provide if our ministries are not too rigid or clique-y.
  2. Their previous schooling & life experience often makes them more mature and ready to serve.
  3. In our discipleship and ministry formation, we can emphasize what can be accomplished in 1-2 years (this departs from the 4-year assembly line that many ministries employ).

I believe these opportunities are significant. Transfer students have been tremendous leaders in our ministry, but I fear they can be easily left out of ministry-as-usual.

It’s my conviction that transfers are often viewed as liabilities, but can very easily become opportunities. For example, our ministry at Penn State has historically involved a lot of transfer students. Initially, this was mostly by accident, but I’m glad for it! For many years, they have been key leaders in what we’re doing.

I should clarify what I mean by transfer, because here and elsewhere it can mean two different things.

1) It can mean a transfer from another school.

2) It can mean a transfer from another campus within your University’s system.

At Penn State, we have approximately 15,000 of the latter, coming to “main campus” from one of our twenty or so “commonwealth” or “branch” campuses spread throughout the state. These students often spend the first two years at a smaller branch, then come up to our big campus. But for all intents and purposes, they are transfers and present the same challenges/opportunities.

Here are some things we’ve found helpful in serving transfers:

  1. Build bridges to campuses that send lots of our students our way. If you know the ministries and leaders there, you can develop a nice pipeline of leaders looking to connect and serve.
  2. Find the Events Designed for Transfers and Show Up. If a school has lots of non-freshman matriculating, odds are they’ve designed some special orientation experiences or events for this group. Find out when/where they are, and look for ways to be present or even help sponsor or facilitate the event. It will be noticed and appreciated!
  3. Hand them the keys right away. Many ministries operate on a “Wait-and-See, Do Your Time, Wait Your Turn” approach to leadership. This is why we miss out on some great leaders who happen to be transfers. They are disqualified by default, because they didn’t go through a freshman Bible study. This is, to say the least, unfortunate. Our ministry structures should be open enough that a mature and godly student can jump in fairly soon if they’re ready. We have had students that we didn’t even know in August serving on our Leadership Team by October.
  4. Communicate that you’re not just for 4-year students. Much of this can be communicated in our language, like not assuming that everyone knows where everything is on campus (because transfers are more likely to live off campus). This subtly demonstrates that we’re not just for freshman and sophomores, but for those whose affiliations with the campus are not as strong.
  5. Maximize their relational connections. When I meet a transfer student, I know this person may seem disconnected at main campus, but that they likely bring lots of connections from their branch campus. If we can get a few of them involved in our ministry, more will follow.

What have you found helpful in reaching out to transfer students?

What are some liabilities and opportunities you’ve found in working with them?

about the author

Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz is the lead pastor of Wellspring Church in State College, PA Penn State University. He is also the author of two books, King of the Campus (2013) and College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture (2011). He frequently speaks and writes on college ministry-related issues, and consults with college ministries across the country.