Why Students Transfer

A goldfish jumping from one fish bowl with two fish in it to a bowl with one fish in it

When high school seniors make their final decision about which college to attend, they usually plan for a four-year commitment–unless they will be starting out at a two-year school or community college. However, one-third of students will transfer at least once, taking courses at more than one college or university.

For community college students, transfer is part of their long-term academic and financial plan. For those who start at a four-year college, transferring to another school typically means that something significant has changed: the student was unhappy or unsuccessful at the first school, and it was just not a good fit; they’re not making good connections or their best friends are attending another school; a change in career goals requires that they go to a different school; or, the finances are not working out.

When parents hear that their student is thinking of transferring, the first step is to find out why. Every student will have some bad days at college, and most will give at least some thought to starting over somewhere else. If the problem is that transition is hard, a transfer is probably not the solution. Another transition to another school will require more adjustment.

In many cases, the issue is that students are not finding friends. Fitting in socially is important for feeling connected to a college or university.

Even if the school is truly a bad fit, it often makes sense to finish the year. Leaving mid-semester means losing finances, and students will receive no academic credit for the time they’ve put in. Leaving mid-year as a freshman is likely to be viewed as a symptom of academic or adjustment problems when the student applies to another school. Still, there are good reasons for leaving a school, and the goal should be to exit in good standing and begin at the next college or university under the best circumstances.

Transfer From Two-Year School

Highway road sign that says, "4-year university next exit"

Planned transition: Beginning school at a community college is increasingly seen as an affordable plan to reduce overall college costs and student loans, with the expectation that students will transfer to a four-year university for their bachelor’s degree. This transition is known as a vertical transfer, and it is the common route from community college to a bachelor’s degree. Ideally, transfer takes place after completing a full load of credits for two years. Students should be working on a transfer plan from the time they first register for classes, with guidance from an adviser. This will help ensure the maximum number of credits will transfer.

Change in career plans: Aside from the natural transition from a two-year to a four-year school, some students change their career plans in their first year or two or find that a different college can provide a better route to the job they want. Transferring from a community college to a technical school–or from a technical college to a more general academic curriculum at a community college–may be a better path leading them to the career they’ve chosen.

In some cases, two-year schools will have an agreement with one or more four-year schools, allowing students to enroll in classes at both institutions or automatically transfer credits between the schools.

Transfer From Four-Year School

A quote that reads, "when obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal, you do not change your decision to get here"

Unmet expectations: The transition from high school to college brings a lot of surprises to first-year students living on campus. The image students have of college almost never quite matches the reality. Everything is new. What they eat, where they sleep, and who they spend their time with can all be different and can feel uncomfortable. Their support system–family and friends from home–seem far away, even when they are geographically close.

For some students, feelings of homesickness and disappointment are overwhelming, and their reaction is to drop out and go home. Parents don’t want their student to be unhappy, and bringing them home seems like the easy and obvious solution. The standard advice, though, is to wait until at least the end of the first year before deciding a school is not a good fit (unless there is something more severe going on with your student, like physical or mental health concerns). Most students overcome these initial challenges. Dropping out during the first semester means losing both money and time, and there’s a good chance that the initial transition to the next school will also be uncomfortable.

Change in major: Students starting college are routinely asked, “What’s your major?” Not all students have decided on a major before their first semester starts. Up to half of entering students are unsure of what they want to study. At least one-third of those who declare a major will change their mind before graduating. When the school they’re attending doesn’t have a path to the career they want, students may need to transfer.

Finances: If a loan doesn’t come through, if poor grades mean a scholarship is no longer available, or if a student makes the wrong financial decisions, it may become necessary to find a way to cut expenses. A change in family finances–loss of a job, unexpected debt, or relocation of one or more family members–requires tough decisions about the family budget. One of the options is for the student to enroll in a less expensive school or move home to reduce costs.

When colleges make the decision: Sometimes decisions to move on are made not by the student, but by the school. Behavior problems, policy or legal violations, or poor grades can result in suspension or dismissal from the school. These are not decisions that colleges and universities make lightly. Procedures are in place, with appeal processes built in, to ensure a student is treated fairly, and an assessment is made carefully on whether the student could stay or might have a path to return.

Living at home and taking classes at a nearby college, or perhaps finding a job, might be the best temporary plan until the student is prepared to re-enroll.