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Transferring Colleges: Everything You Need to Know

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If you’re thinking about transferring to another college, it’s crucial that you understand the costs associated with switching schools. There are legitimate reasons for transferring, but the advantages have to be weighed against the disadvantages you may face as a transfer student. This article explains how to make an informed decision about whether you should transfer to another college.


What percentage of students transfer, and what is their transfer pattern? 

Transferring to another college is more common than you might think. According to a 2015 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 37 percent of college students transfer at least once within six years. Broadly speaking, there are three main transfer patterns. You’re probably already familiar with vertical transfers (i.e. transfers from two-year institutions to four-year institutions). In addition, there are horizontal transfers (i.e. transfers from two-year institutions to other two-year institutions or from four-year institutions to other four-year institutions) and reverse transfers (i.e. transfers from four-year institutions to two-year institutions). A student’s transfer pattern correlates with the number of credits he or she is able to transfer successfully. In general, students who transfer from two-year to four-year institutions transfer the most credits, probably because vertical transfers are a common and accepted pathway in postsecondary education. By contrast, students who transfer from four-year to two-year institutions transfer the fewest credits (66 percent of these students lose all their credits in the transfer). The majority of students who transfer do so after their first or second year of college.


What are some reasons students transfer? 

Some students enroll in their first institution knowing that they’ll transfer after one or two years. It’s pretty common, for example, for students to save money by attending a community college first and then transferring to a four-year institution. Many students, however, transfer because of unexpected personal or institutional factors. Their interests may change since applying to college, and their school may not offer a wide variety of courses in the program they now want to pursue. Their school may not be challenging enough, and they may feel that another institution will offer a better academic environment. Or they may be having trouble adjusting to the class sizes at their school, which they feel is too big and, therefore, not conducive to their learning. 


In addition to these academic- and career-related reasons, students may also feel unhappy with the social scene at their current institution, wishing to transfer to a smaller or larger school depending on their personality. They may also wish to attend an institution closer to home or where there are more group or social activities of interest. 


Finally, students often transfer for financial reasons. College is expensive, and many students arrive on campus only to be hit with hidden costs—unexpected expenses that make your actual cost of attendance higher than the official estimates. Students at a private nonprofit university, for example, may consider transferring to a public university as they’re generally less expensive. In fact, when students were asked about their reasons for transferring, reverse transfer students cited the high costs of attendance at their first institutions as their primary reason.


What are the costs associated with transferring colleges? 

There are personal, academic, and financial costs to transferring colleges. A strong relationship with your professors is important for your success as they will be the ones writing your letters of recommendations and connecting you to job opportunities. If you transfer to a different institution, you’ll be leaving behind the connections you made at your first institution, and you’ll have to start all over again. The same goes for the friends you’ve made and any organizations you may have joined. 


In addition, adjusting to a new environment may take a toll on your academic performance. Many students experience transfer shock, a temporary dip in their grades after transferring to their new institution. One study found that transfer students experienced an average GPA drop of 0.6 in their first semester. Transfer shock doesn’t affect all students equally. The same study found that STEM majors and students transferring from two-year institutions experienced the greatest amount of shock, leading them to switch majors or even leave the institution. 


Moreover, transferring will most likely delay graduation. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that on average, college students who attend only one institution take 4 years and 3 months (or 51 months) to graduate. In comparison, students who attend two institutions take about 59 months to graduate, 8 months longer than their peers. This is because only about a third of all transfer students successfully transfer all of their previously earned credits. According to a 2014 report, 39 percent of students who transfer do not transfer any credits earned at their previous college or university, 28 percent transfer some credits, and 32 percent transfer all of their previously earned credits. The report also found that on average, students lose approximately 13 credits when they transfer. If you decide to transfer, you should expect to graduate at least a semester later than your peers. 


There are financial costs to delaying graduation. An extra semester of college means an extra semester of college expenses. In addition, you have to consider the opportunity cost of the salary you could be earning and the workforce experience you could be gaining if you had not delayed graduation. In fact, a paper published in the Journal of Business & Leadership estimates the economic cost of a one-year delay in graduation to be between $94,921 and $114,589. If you’re considering a transfer for financial reasons, take note. Even if you’re saving money in the short-term by transferring to a less expensive institution, your decision might cost you in the long-term. 


When is it a good idea to transfer?  

Although there are costs associated with transferring colleges, that doesn’t mean transferring is never the right decision. For example, transferring is generally recommended as a means to further your academic or career goals. If you feel like you’re not learning much at your current institution or believe your school is not doing a good enough job of preparing you for the workforce, there may be no point in staying. Additionally, transferring may be the right decision for you if you know that most of your credits will transfer. The financial costs associated with transferring mostly have to do with the consequences of delaying graduation. Avoiding these by graduating on time will make your transfer process that much smoother.


Despite the financial costs of delaying graduation, there are times when transferring makes financial sense. For example, a student might transfer from a private nonprofit university to a local public university, saving money by living with his or her parents and commuting to school from home. Given that they’re not losing too many credits in the transfer, this might save the student tens of thousands of dollars


Finally (and perhaps most importantly), you should consider transferring if you’re unhappy at your current institution. Of course, getting used to a new environment is a difficult task. No school is perfect, and there will always be things to criticize about your institution no matter where you are. However, if you’re seriously dissatisfied with your current institution to the point where it’s affecting your overall happiness, it might be time for a change. Just make sure you give your school a chance before writing it off as a bad fit—students’ initial impressions about their schools often change as the year progresses.


Whether the costs of transferring are outweighed by the benefits is something that is ultimately up to you to decide. If you end up deciding that a transfer is in your future, here are some tips for making the transfer process as smooth and seamless as possible: 


1. Plan ahead.

Your transfer process will go a lot more smoothly if you plan for it as early as you can. Ideally, you would know the school you’d like to transfer to as early as your freshman year. That way, you can check the school’s transfer policy to see how many credits you can expect to transfer and plan accordingly. If you’ll be transferring vertically, check if your school has an articulation agreement with another institution. These are partnerships between community colleges and four-year colleges that simplify the transition from one to the other. For example, they may guarantee that an associate’s degree earned at one institution will satisfy the freshman and sophomore general education requirements at the other institution.  


2. Know what you’re getting yourself into.

Precision is key for a good cost-benefit analysis. When weighing the pros and cons of transferring, find out how much you would save by transferring to another college, how many credits would be transferred to your new institution, and by how much the transfer would delay graduation. Make sure you ask not only how many of your previously earned credits will transfer, but also whether they will count toward your major (rather than toward your electives) at your new institution. Some transfer students find themselves in a frustrating situation where they have enough credits to graduate but not enough to earn a degree in their major. 


3. Get good grades.

In case you needed another reason to ace your classes, credit transfer depends on your academic performance. Most schools have minimum grade requirements for transferring credits, and students must generally earn a C or above in a course for the credit to transfer.  


4. Consider taking summer classes.
If you weren’t able to transfer all of your credits, taking summer classes at a local community college can be a great way to increase your likelihood of graduating on time. It’s an affordable way to work on your academic or degree requirements as community colleges charge only a fraction of the price public and private universities do. A 2012 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that students at four-year institutions who enrolled in a two-year institution during the summer and returned to their original institutions had a completion rate of 77.5 percent. By comparison, students at four-year institutions who never enrolled in a two-year institution had a completion rate of 58.4 percent. 


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