“Time to Transfer?”

By Peter Van Buskirk

I had a number of conversations over the last several weeks with individuals who wanted to talk about the college transfer process. They were coming at the discussion from a variety of different perspectives ranging from the intentional to the desperate. The one thing they had in common was that they weren’t where they wanted to be—or so they thought.

In light of these conversations, it would seem appropriate to discuss the topic further in this space where the insight gleaned might help both those active in the transfer process as well as families that might be weighing the transfer option as part of the four year educational plan.

Before we look at the transfer process, it is important to acknowledge that many educators agree the optimal learning experience is one that takes place over four years on one campus. While there are certainly great examples of individuals who have pieced together meaningful undergrad experiences at multiple schools, the continuity of one academic program—and the relationships that emerge through it—typically fosters a more holistic experience and often produces more favorable results after graduation.

Opportunities to transfer into institutions are typically contingent on two factors: the availability of space and the availability of funds (for those who may need assistance). For example, schools that experience very little turnover in student enrollment (prior to graduation) may take on few, if any, transfers in a given year. These are places that, by virtue of rigorous admission standards, can make sure the students who enter, either as first-year students or transfers, are well equipped to manage the expectations of their respective classrooms.

Many of them also invest significantly in the various types of support needed for their students to find success. As a result, students who enter usually stay and graduate. Not surprisingly, these are also places that many students seeking to transfer see as “destination schools.”

By contrast, institutions more open to transfers are those that experience greater attrition prior to graduation. Their ability to support transfer students who need financial assistance may vary from year to year depending on the funds available at the time. It is possible, then, that institutions could extend offers of transfer admission but fail to provide the necessary financial aid.

In any case, the admission process for transfer candidates is remarkably similar to that of first-year applicants with several notable exceptions. 1) The high school transcript often takes a “back seat” to the college record in the credential review process. 2) The high school extracurricular record becomes secondary to involvement at the college level. 3) A statement is often required of the “sending” dean of student affairs attesting to the student’s good standing at the institution. 4) Finally, transfer students will be expected to address their reasons for transferring. The more selective the process, the greater the scrutiny that will be given to each factor as admission officers ask the question, “If we admit this student, what do we get?”

Given this background on the process, the rationale for transferring can be considered contextually. While there are myriad reasons for transferring, they tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Intentional
  2. Circumstantial
  3. Reactive

Intentional  The transfer process is both expedient and intentional for students who plan from the outset to piece together academic experiences at multiple schools. For some, it’s a matter of finances. They plan to address general education requirements at a community college or state university where the cost per credit is much lower before transferring into a four-year college to complete their degree requirements. Others simply need to develop academic competencies (and confidence) before embarking on a four-year degree.

Regardless, students intending to pursue a “2+2” degree path need to make sure the potential destination colleges promise to accept the coursework taken during the first two years and to support the transferring student with need-based financial aid. Many community colleges have negotiated articulation agreements with four-year programs that offer such assurances.

Circumstantial  Sometimes, the “best laid” plans fail to accommodate changes in circumstance at a chosen college. For example, unforeseen changes in career interest, access to competitive opportunities athletically, health concerns, or financial support may put a student in the position of having to look for a new college home. When this happens, it is best to work with advisors at the “sending” school to compile a compelling statement in support of the transfer.

Reactive  Some of my recent exchanges were with parents, worried that the first-year experience for their students isn’t going so well. Such revelations are never easy especially in light of the time and energy that was expended in the initial college selection process. As a result, parents are often conflicted about what to do—rush to their students’ sides with assurances that a transfer is in order or let things work themselves out on their own.

That the transfer “button” has been touched in any way is often symptomatic of adjustment issues (i.e. homesickness, high school relationship that is “on the rocks,” or envy—“the grass is greener somewhere else”) that do indeed benefit from time, experience and, in some cases, added maturity. My experience is that the vast majority of scenarios that seem highly worrisome at the end of the first semester have all but been forgotten by the end of the second.

Summary: All potential transfer scenarios must be carefully considered, not only for the benefits that seem to be immediately apparent, but for the long-term implications. If you go down the path of the transfer applicant, do so with your eyes wide open and an honest assessment of your rationale for doing so.

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