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Understanding Transfers: Unique Students with Unique Needs

Tomorrow's Academy

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Barack Obama transferred. So did JFK and John Quincy Adams. All three transferred to and graduated from Ivy League universities. I am proud to share these traits with them. Not so much because I also graduated from an Ivy League school (Brown '94), but because I, too, was a transfer student.



The posting below looks at some of the issues faced by transfer students and how faculty can be more supportive in helping them be successful.  It is by Samantha Grabelle, MSW Writing Specialist The Academic Center for Excellence Bryant University, Smithfield, RI, and is #52 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 19, Number 4, May, 2010.© Copyright 1996-2010. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


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Understanding Transfers: Unique Students with Unique Needs


Barack Obama transferred. So did JFK and John Quincy Adams. All three transferred to and graduated from Ivy League universities. I am proud to share these traits with them. Not so much because I also graduated from an Ivy League school (Brown '94), but because I, too, was a transfer student.

Early Decision Asks a Lot

It is not easy picking your first college, let alone your second (or sometimes, third). Most schools allow students to enter "undecided," and to change their majors, because we know that it is a lot to ask of a high school senior (or an adult considering college for the first time) to know exactly what she wants to study before exploring her interests, talents, and aspirations in a college environment. It is also a lot to ask that she will know exactly what type of college is best for her. In "'Feeling Like a Freshman Again': The Transfer Student Transition," Barbara Townsend (2008) reports that at least 40% of students attend more than one college (69). How should the institutions receiving these students support them through this transition? How do transfer students differ from first time freshmen in their needs and attitudes?

My Rocky Road (Not Ice Cream!)

When I was a high school junior applying to colleges, I was pretty sure I wanted to be an architect, so

my first choice was Carnegie- Mellon. But by the time I visited the school, I had already started changing, thinking about advertising. My diverse career aspirations were nothing new. In eighth grade I had to research three possible careers; I chose teacher, disc jockey, and professional clown. In the end, I chose a college without consideration of my career at all. When I visited Boston University, it was foggy and pouring rain, and without an actual "campus" like the other schools I'd seen, it was quickly losing its appeal-until the student tour guide pointed up to the fourth floor window overlooking the Free at Last sculpture dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., and told us that it had been the window of Dr. King's office when he was a doctoral candidate in Philosophy. I turned to my mother and said, "This is where I'm going." Attending the same college as my personal icon made sense at the time, and I enjoyed much of my experience at B.U., especially being a suburban girl finally living in "the big city." But when it came to academics, I couldn't find my place. After taking more than a year off for personal reasons, I transferred to Brown so that I could create my own major in "multicultural education." My transfer transition experience was definitely a worst-case scenario, but it did not sour me on the value of transferring. I was a mid-year transfer to a school that had a very limited transfer orientation pro- gram, majoring in a subject that was very controversial even in the height of the P.C. era, and I was evicted from my first dorm room two hours after my parents and I moved in all of my stuff. Turns out, the room I had been assigned was in a house open only to Slavic Studies majors, and there was a two-year waiting list that Residence Life was, apparently, not aware of. Mom and Dad and I had to move everything ourselves-through the snow-to the other side of campus. I moved into my own apartment the following semester, but I was always confident that I had made the right decision to transfer to a different college.

Applying Experience - Responding to Data

Today, I work at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and teach the required college success course, Foundations for Learning (FFL). Last semester, for the first time, I taught a section for transfer students. Bryant's FFL course became a requirement for transfers after it was recognized that their probation and dismissal rates tended to be higher than that of the general population. Laurie Hazard, Ed.D., the FFL Curriculum Coordinator and co- author of the course's required text, explains: "Since our course is unique-with the focus on behaviors, attitudes and academic adjustment-we felt transfers could benefit from the content." The statistics show that the course has been effective in reducing the probation rate, and the anecdotal data tells us that our transfers are making stronger connections to the community and taking more advantage of the school's resources.

Twenty Flavors

My class of twenty presented me, a novice college instructor, with unique challenges that, upon reflection, resulted in part from my students representing nearly twenty different "transfer types." The class as a whole was fairly typical in its initial (and for some, ongoing) lack of interest in the course, and in feeling that they already knew how to be successful at college. Though my curriculum could have used some tweaking, I think it did eventually offer most of them a deeper understanding of Bryant's resources, insight into how to change or adjust their study habits and time management skills, and inspiration to take more responsibility for themselves as learners, and for Bryant, their adopted community.

A number of "transfer types" were particularly responsive to my efforts to support them, both through the class and in my role as informal advisor working alongside their assigned academic advisor. There was the adult student who started out at a community college after needing to find a new career; the young commuter living on her own in an apartment for the first time and suffering from the isolation; the high achiever who was finally in a setting that challenged her academically; and the outgoing young man excited to learn more about himself and make a real contribution to his new, much smaller college. The new mom who shared her story of accidentally getting pregnant her first year in college was especially grateful for the course's focus on time management, and my encouragement to learn new, baby-proof study strategies from Bryant's Academic Skills Specialist.

Reluctant Learners

The "transfer types" that didn't respond well included the student who felt the one hour per week he spent in my class, and the approximately one to two hours per week of homework, were exorbitant. I had a few of these. It was at my individual mid-term check-in meetings that I made the connection between their general disregard for my class and their struggles in their other courses. They weren't making use of tutoring services or the Writing Center; they weren't using planners; and they weren't taking advantage of their professors' office hours. One student told me that it wouldn't help to go to the office hours of a professor who was failing him because the professor "hasn't even taken the time to learn my name." In retaliation, this student had managed not to learn the professor's name either. Although not for this student, the mid-term check-in became a turning point for most of the other students whose poor performance in my course revealed overall struggles with college in general. One student was unsure why he was oversleeping and a referral to counseling was helpful. Another realized that the amount of effort that had gotten her by at her old school wasn't cutting it at Bryant, so she started regularly studying in our academic labs where tutors are always available. A socially awkward commuter was having a difficult time fitting in. After our class pizza party and his participation in two group projects, his comfort level, and his academic efforts, increased.

Early Aid

Bryant's population of transfers from two-year schools is approximately equal to that of those from four-year schools. Brenda Doran, Director of Transfer Admission, emphasizes that Bryant works with all of its transfer students both before and after acceptance. She explains, "We work with students who are applying to transfer to help make sure they are taking the right courses at their current school; then, every admitted student receives an official credit evaluation not only telling them which courses transfer, but how they apply to their degree, and how many more courses they need to take to complete their degree at Bryant."

This helps them not only make informed decisions, but can save them significant time and money. In addition to the transfer-specific FFL course and a full-day special orientation, Bryant provides all transfer students with an advisor and an Academic Skills Specialist who support them and track their progress up to graduation. There are a lot of ways to support transfer students, but it seems most important to ensure that they feel their decision was a good one, and that they have the knowledge, resources, and early individualized support to reap the benefits of their new college.

Choosing which college to attend is one of the first major life-changing decisions a young person makes.

Deciding to stay in school when you're not happy with your choice is one of the toughest. I wasn't sure

I would return to college at all after dropping out of B.U. I am very glad that I did. Transferring takes guts. Leaving the known for the unknown, especially socially, is not easy. My guess is that more often than not, transfers walk into their new schools with more significant academic and/or social needs than traditional first-year students. But many of these needs stem from the fact that they are also walking in with a more refined understanding of their interests, aspirations, and academic strengths and weaknesses. I know I did. Honor your transfer students' concerted efforts to take their educations into their own hands. Who knows. One of them might become President.


Townsend, B. K. 2008, Winter. "Feeling Like a Freshman Again": The Transfer Student Transition. New Directions for Higher Education 144: 69-77. Retrieved March 1, 2010, from Academic Search Premier database.