Be our Guest: A Conflict Over Transient Student Services

Note: This article was written under Marisa’s previous role at Columbus State Community College. All institutional references are to Columbus State Community College.

Community college services remain busy throughout all three of the main semesters: Fall, Spring, and Summer. Due largely in part to a non-traditional population, accelerated degree programs, technical career fields, and alternative scheduling, two-year college students often attend classes across ten months of the year.

While the Summer peak remains high and often mirrors the enrollment activity at four-year colleges and universities, the demographics of a community college change slightly between May and August. Campuses begin to take on a more traditional feel as college students return back home from residential institutions and utilize the community college setting to get ahead or catch up over a long break.

Transients, as many colleges classify this particular cohort and enrollment pattern, represent a significant portion of many community college’s profile year round. During Summer 2015, our campus welcomed over 6,000 students in the Transient/Guest cohort, making up a significant percentage of the overall enrollment for the term. These students represent a wide variety of educational goals and profiles, coming to the community college from universities within the area and also those outside of the state. On several occasions the Advising team has even worked with students attending Ivy League institutions who are home for the summer seeking enrichment or completion of a general requirement.

In most cases, the local community college campus is an ideal destination to achieve such educational goals. A low cost of tuition, adherence to transfer module standards, and a wide variety of general purpose coursework creates an excellent environment in which to host guests. For the most part, the enrollment process lacks some of the barriers often found at more selective institutions. An open enrollment environment welcomes all into the classroom, and community colleges have grown accustomed to meeting the needs of perhaps the widest variety of individuals.

Given this perfect match, why might community college struggle to meet the needs of the Transient population? What are the challenges facing some community colleges as they attempt to increase enrollment through service to students in this cohort, and should community colleges offer the same support services to Transient students as native students?

These are just some of the questions facing many community college administrators as two-year campuses continue to embrace the innovative success, retention, and support initiatives commonly found within university systems. As community colleges grapple with movement from enrollment-based funding models to success and completion agendas, where does the Transient student population fit?

The Transient Student Dilemma

Guest students can easily be viewed as a source of tuition revenue by those managing enrollment at community colleges, however, intake processes designed for the general, degree-seeking population can present additional barriers to a temporary population. While community colleges have remained focus on access and open enrollment, admissions processes have evolved to maintain data integrity and promote student success. In an effort to better track student progress, provide proactive retention supports, and establish reliable data, some community colleges are beginning to explore mandatory transcript submission policies, academic credentialing related to Math and English proficiency, and widespread encouragement of standardized test completion. Likewise, as a response to success-driven funding changes, some community colleges turn focus to increased course pre-requisite requirements, concurrent enrollment pairings, and learning community structures.

While these initiatives and policies, in theory, support student learning, they can be viewed as barriers to visiting students who wish to simply complete a singular course to meet a requirement at his or her primary institution. If a guest student is required to submit additional transcripts, take placement tests outside of the desired content area, or attend mandatory Orientation programming in order to register, he or she may opt out of enrollment altogether. While the student is entitled to do so, these choices can impact a community college’s revenue and overall enrollment in the long-term.

This risk leaves community colleges to explore separate application, advising, and registration approaches for varied groups of students.  The open enrollment nature, coupled with a reliance on student self-reporting, presents a challenge in creating multiple and unique routes of entry.

This challenge extends beyond Admissions processes as well, as support units such as Advising, Tutoring, Financial Aid, and Counseling struggle to identify the best courses of action for both native and visiting students.

The fast-paced student services office I currently lead was faced with this conflict several summers ago. Faced with an increase in Transient/Guest student traffic within the Advising office, both native and guest students experienced high wait times during peak walk-in hours. The Advisors and I quickly realized Transient/Guest students were simply seeking transactional services such as permission to enter certain courses, quick pre-requisite reviews, and assistance with online registration procedures. This cohort of students, however, was mixed in with degree-seeking students in need of developmental advising, academic intervention discussions, career guidance, and extensive first semester assistance.

Stretched thin and overwhelmed with overall student traffic, our team began to develop strategies to serve Transient/Guest students differently and encourage simplified, online, transaction-based interactions. Through the introduction of an online registration form and pre-requisite authorization process, most guest students are now served at a distance, leaving additional advising capacity to manage the more extensive support needs of degree-seeking students at the institution.

This example demonstrates the challenge faced by many other community college enrollment departments. As community colleges commit to meeting nearly every educational need presented at the front door, colleges are forced to look at new ways to spread resources and, in some cases, diversify service structures.

With an increased focus on student success, however, does movement towards transactional services for guest students impact the student experience? What impact could this approach have on overall student success, and the college’s ability to attract and possibly retain the Transient/Guest student population?

An Enrollment Management Perspective

As with most other institutions, both two- and four-year, credential completion remains a central priority in student success within community colleges.

However, administrators focused on Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) often struggle to find a balance between open accessibility and supporting current students in their efforts towards degree completion. As guest students utilize the community college in an effort to fulfill home institution requirements, save on tuition costs, or fill in gaps between undergraduate and graduate programs, the community college environment struggles to prioritize these goals.

Due to the high proportion of first generation students attending community colleges, the college’s native population risks late registration behavior. Through direct work with students, I have observed this pattern on many occasions, as our students sometimes wait to register for the next term due to childcare considerations, lack of confidence in his/her ability to successfully complete current term coursework, financial constraints, or scheduling needs. As open registration progresses, savvier guest students from other colleges and universities begin to register for available sections. Unfortunately, hesitant community college students sometimes find themselves stuck without the courses they need in order to persist. Changing the late registration pattern requires communication and encouragement from student services offices such as Advising, Financial Aid, and specialized programs.

A 2013 review of California community colleges explored priority registration across 110 institutions and found that 93% of the institutions reviewed offered priority registration to continuing students. While some of the community colleges prioritized students by time at the college, others prioritized by the number of credit hours accumulated (Bahr, Gross, Slay, & Christensen, 2015).

While the study did not directly address colleges’ handling of Transient populations, this stratified registration strategy reflects a high priority on student credential completion. As a result (either intentional or unintentional), this type of approach postpones registration activity that could impede native students’ ability to persist within the system. This is just one example of methods community colleges may employ to strike a balance between meeting the needs of Transient and native student populations.

Bahr et al. (2015) acknowledge that registration priority has the potential to disadvantage students moving across multiple institutions to achieve educational goals. The authors encourage enrollment management officials at community colleges to explore partnerships between other institutions that allow students to retain priority as they move across systems. Such an approach could assist Transient students as this cohort attempts to secure seats in key community college classes, however, variances across partner institutions challenge this recommendation.

Recruiting Transient Students: What is Appropriate?

As mentioned earlier, Transient students can help community colleges fill empty seats, establish strong transferability agreements with other institutions, and offer a solution to students seeking flexible course options at a lower tuition rate. From a student success perspective, data at the institution in which I work has shown that the Transient student population successfully completes coursework at a higher percentage than other students within the College. In addition, students with home institutions withdraw from classes at a lower rate compared to others attending the college. While these students present service and support challenges to community colleges, they can also be perceived as assets in states that employ success-based funding for higher education.

But is it appropriate for community colleges to directly recruit a Transient population? After all, these students are enrolled in other institutions, presumably completing degrees at home colleges and universities. While the community college is well positioned to offer services and coursework to these individuals, should colleges actively seek their business?

In a recent interoffice conversation, several Advisors and I were discussing the “word of mouth” nature of our Transient enrollment patterns. Several local colleges and universities, as well as those further away from the state, are regularly represented in our summer guest student cohort. In some cases, the student’s Advisor may have recommended a summer class or two while home from a residential campus. Presumably, however, these colleges and universities would prefer to obtain revenue from additional coursework taken at their tuition rate.

The Transient population presents significant enrollment potential for many community colleges, though the unique existence of a home college or university complicates traditional recruitment efforts designed to increase overall enrollment. While active recruitment of this population on campuses would generally be considered unethical, community colleges may employ more passive strategies to incentivize students to take a course or two over a semester break, utilize the community college to “catch up” in degree programs, or fulfill general education requirements within a unique setting.

Given its representation in community college enrollment profiles, the Transient student population represents enrollment potential that cannot be ignored. How a college attempts to secure this enrollment, however, presents unique challenges to Admissions, Enrollment Management, and Marketing offices alike. Strategic and collaborative efforts between each of these departments can help a community college to attract a strong guest cohort, especially during summer terms when degree-seeking student enrollment may decline.

Unintended Consequences

Anecdotally, many Transient students appear to prefer quick, uncomplicated transactions with the community college. With home institutions fulfilling the role of support, guest students can utilize their existing support structures to fulfill in-depth academic advising, Financial Aid, or long-term planning needs. In these cases, the community college with which Transient students interact can be seen as a means to an end.

While some Transient students may prefer a transactional interaction with the community college, overly simplified processes can cause barriers for students later on. For example, community colleges that waive required documents or Admissions processes for guest students may find it challenging to work with students if and when their educational goals change. In addition, bypassing pre-requisite coursework in an effort to abridge registration barriers may lead to advising challenges if the student decides to remain at the college and pursue an academic program. For this reason, simplified efforts designed to cater to the Transient population may need to be weighed against potential unintended consequences. Without communication, proper control over student records, and a strategic method of bridging a Transient student into an academic program (if desired), colleges may find gaps in meeting the long-term needs of this student population.


Students utilizing multiple institutions to meet degree requirements is not a new phenomenon, and this enrollment trend may in fact increase as students wish to save tuition dollars, accelerated completion, control student loan debt, or diversify their college experience. Community colleges are well-positioned to serve the needs of this student populations through ease of access, diverse course offerings, and open enrollment structures.

Faced with a diverse range of students’ educational goals, community college student services and enrollment management professionals continue to evolve processes, service models, and policies to serve the needs of many. Capitalizing on existing resources, community colleges stretch capacity to defy the “one size fits all” approach to student support and services. Transient students represent a significant portion of a community college’s enrollment, and the management of resources surrounding this population continues to prompt discussion moving forward. The Transient student population provides not only challenges, but unique opportunities to community colleges seeking to increase enrollment in the coming years.

Discussion Questions

  1. In your opinion, should Transient/ Guest students receive the same services and attention as native students? Why or why not?
  2. What implications could differences in services and processes have on student success, retention, and persistence? Might differentiated services prevent prospective students from fully transferring to the institution to pursue degrees?


Bahr, P. R., Gross, J. L., Slay, K. E., & Christensen, R. D. (2015). First in Line: Student Registration Priority in Community Colleges. Educational Policy, 29(2), 342-374. doi:10.1177/0895904813492381

About the Author

Upon completion of this article, Marisa Vernon has transitioned to a new role as Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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