Transfer students — whose challenges have often been ignored in higher education — are feeling a surge in popularity as colleges and universities are increasingly wooing them.
“This was a group that was always taken for granted,” said Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver.
But last month, the University of California system announced that it has accepted more transfer students than ever before. And in a move that is perhaps more symbolic than substantive, Princeton University has, for its 2018 class, accepted 13 transfer students, the first such students it has enrolled since 1990.
“At this moment in time, transfer students are receiving the most positive attention from higher education that they ever have,” said Janet Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia.
Transfer students, who make up 38 percent of all students in higher education, have always helped a university’s revenue by replacing students who leave after the first or second year. But behind the new interest in courting them lies one stark reality: Undergraduate enrollment is declining and has been for six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit education research organization.
That is because of a demographic shift as the number of high school graduates is projected to decline over the next decade, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast. In addition, when the economy improves, the job market becomes more attractive to some high school graduates than college.
As if that weren’t enough, fewer international students are enrolling in American colleges, after years of intensive growth, partly because of the nation’s more restrictive views on immigration and partly because English-speaking countries such as Canada and Australia are luring away such students.
Transfer students can offer the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity schools are seeking. Of the 13 Princeton accepted — 10 of whom are enrolling in the fall — eight served or are currently serving in active duty in the military and eight, as the university put it in its news release, “self-identified as people of color.”
Transfers also help a college’s overall yield (or how many students who are accepted actually enroll), something that is crucial to administrators. According to a 2017 survey of its members by the National Association for College AdmissionCounseling, almost two-thirds of transfer applicants who were admitted to a university enrolled, compared with 28 percent of freshmen.
Even though transfer students make up a significant part of the higher education population, they have been largely invisible, in part because, until last year, they were not included in federal graduation rates for colleges and universities produced by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. These graduation rates are featured in the all-important college rankings and are used by policymakers and the institutions themselves to judge college performance.
But the data only reflected traditional students who entered as freshmen and stayed at the same higher education institution during their entire college career.
“The biggest problem is no one claims accountability for transfer students because there is no federal accountability for transfer students,” Dr. Marling said. Last year, the Education Department expanded the type of information it gathers from colleges and universities to include more nontraditional students, a move she called a good first step
One of the major stumbling blocks for transfer students, especially those going from a community college to a four-year institution, is finding out in an understandable and timely manner whether the course they already took will be accepted as credit not only toward graduation but also toward their chosen major.
A report last year from the Government Accountability Office found that students who moved between public schools — the majority of transfer students — lost, on average, 37 percent of their credits. Those transferring from private for-profit schools to public schools lost an estimated 94 percent of their credits.
To address this issue, more and more universities now have articulation agreements — partnerships — with community colleges that explain and align credits that are needed for a specific academic program or degree. They are also offering advisers who concentrate largely on easing the way for transfer students and offering clearer and more transparent information online.
Adelphi University on Long Island, for example, has become focused on the transfer students who make up just under 40 percent of its incoming class.
It has invested in software to help students better figure out online how their credits will transfer and split its director of undergraduate admissions into two positions a few years ago, with one director focused on first-year students and the other on transfers.
“This ensures each group is getting the attention it deserves,” said Kristen Capezza, Adelphi’s associate vice president of enrollment management.
In addition, Adelphi has instant decision and registration days, where students can apply, be admitted and registered in one day; last year the university experimented with summer “transfer Tuesdays”, which have continued this summer; about 20 to 30 students attend each session, Ms. Capezza said.
Nandy Brijlal, a 21-year-old from Queens, never considered going anywhere but the City University of New York when she graduated from high school, and she never thought about transferring.
But in her sophomore year she toured Adelphi with a cousin and was instantly wowed by the place and the idea of going to a much smaller institution.
“I made an appointment with the admissions officer to find out about which credits would transfer, within one week I had my transfer credit evaluation, and I was enrolled as a junior in the fall,” she said. Although she had some early trepidation about making friends, a job in the admissions office helped, and now she plans to get her masters in biology at Adelphi.
Cost and financial aid are other serious barriers for transfer students, many of whom are low-income. Universities typically have not offered them scholarships and grants available to first-year students. Now, many institutions are increasing the money available; for example, Texas Christian University, whose incoming class last year was about one-fifth transfer students, the highest number in its history, now gives full-tuition scholarships for transfer students, something not available in the past, said Heath Einstein, the university’s dean of admission.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling last year addressed another problem transfer students often face — being asked to make a deposit to guarantee their spot at their university before knowing how many of their credits will transfer or what financial aid they will receive. For the first time, the association published guidelines in its code of ethics specifying that colleges must provide transfer students with an evaluation of their credits and a good-faith estimate of how they will be applied to their degree, as well as a financial aid notification, before requiring a deposit.
The University of Central Florida, the second-largest university in the country, has more transfer students in its incoming class than first-year freshmen. Last fall, 62 percent of its incoming class consisted of transfer students.
Many of those students — 51 percent last year, or more than 6,000, — come through its highly lauded DirectConnect to U.C.F. program, which began in 2005, and partners with six community colleges, or state colleges as they’re called in Florida.
Last year, the university also created 27 “success coaches” who work with students planning to transfer and academic advisers to make sure the students have the skills and credits necessary before and after transferring.
“A freshman has four years to engage with our institution. A transfer student only has two years with us,” said Jennifer Sumner, the executive director for U.C.F. Connect, which oversees the DirectConnect program. “We want to work with students so they feel a part of the university culture, and reduce the lag time to get them acclimated to the institution.”
A major sign of its success is that 71 percent of DirectConnect students graduate with a bachelor’s within six years of starting their college careers, Dr. Sumner said. The nationwide college graduation rate is almost 60 percent for students who graduate within six years from the college where they started, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That compares to a graduation rate of 42 percent for transfer students within six years of starting at a community college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Since many transfer students lose credits when they switch schools and go part time, they often take longer to graduate.
Another reason for welcoming transfer students is that many colleges realize that a high portion of the students they turn away are just as good as the ones they accept.
“Transfer students are seen as much stronger than in the past,” Mr. Einstein of T.C.U. said, and as his university has become more selective, “we now don’t have space for students we’d love to have.” In addition, he said, the high cost of four-year colleges also meant that more students chose to do their first two years at a community college to save money.
While credits and money are important, so are other aspects of college living, such as residential life and extracurricular activities. Besides raising the merit aid it offers transfer students, the University of Denver last year created a dedicated dormitory that can house 36 transfer students. And last year, the school’s student government, for the first time, developed a position for a transfer student representative.
Increasingly, Mr. Einstein said, colleges are realizing that “it’s really unethical to bring in transfer students and not support them in the same way you do other students.”
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