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The Complexities of Transfer Students

The EvoLLLution | The Complexities of Transfer Students
Transfer students come to their new campus with a wide array of fears, challenges and goals. It’s critical for staff and administrators at the receiving institution to help get them on the path to success.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” In taking Mr. Hemingway’s advice, the truest sentence I can write when attempting to discuss transfer students is this:

Transfer students are the most diverse, most complicated, and most rewarding population of students to work with in higher education.  

Transfer students fit all of the demographics represented within an institution of higher education. They comprise a mix of traditional-age and non-traditional-age students; first-generation students; students who are legacies at a previous institution with higher education embedded in their lifestyle; students of all races, ethnicities and genders. Some students transfer because of an articulation agreement between institutions; others transfer to be closer to home (or to get farther from home), or because of various life events. The one commonality among all transfer students is this: They all arrive at their new institution uncertain.

Despite the ever-changing climate of campuses across the United States, higher education faculty, staff, and administration seem to be complacent in their work, falling back on frustrating phrases like, “This is just how it’s done” or, “This is how I’ve always taught this course.” Today’s student is not the same student of ten years ago. Today’s student needs to know he or she has an advocate and someone looking out for their individual needs. In order for each student to know that we, higher education professionals, support them, we absolutely must make sure that we are slowing down to have meaningful conversations with each and every one of them.

Kathleen Shea Smith, Associate Provost for Academic Advising at the University of Oklahoma, visited our advisors at Middle Tennessee State University last summer. When she was here, she mentioned a passage from Pascarella and Terenzini, two very well known figures in higher education, and it immediately changed the way I approach my conversations with students. Pascarella and Terenzini (1980) wrote, “Interaction with faculty and the perceived levels of faculty care and concern were recognized as the strongest contributors to the identification of returning and departing students.” While Pascarella and Terenzini spoke of faculty interaction, the care and concern shown by staff and administration is just as effective in building relationships with students and, essentially, increasing retention and graduation rates. If students know that we all care and that we are all absolutely willing to devote our time to their goals and ideas, they are more apt to return in following semesters and become successful students.

Community College to Four-Year Institution: When Transfer Agreements Go Wrong

Middle Tennessee State University has established transfer agreements with nearby community colleges to better accommodate students that want to earn a four-year degree. While transfer agreements are intended to help students smoothly transition between two universities, the actual transfer process often requires the student to complete a number of steps. For example, Middle Tennessee State University has a transfer pathway agreement with a number of community colleges so that students may complete their Associate of Science in Teaching (A.S.T.) degree at their respective community college and then, after transferring to MTSU, complete their Bachelor of Science with teaching licensure in elementary education. It’s a fairly simple process to transfer; however, there are a set of requirements that must be completed prior to the transfer. If those requirements are not made clear to the student, or if the student fails to complete them, the transfer of credits becomes much more complicated.

I recently met with a small group of new transfer students that I knew had difficulty transferring to MTSU. The conflicts they experienced were no fault of our institution–rather, these conflicts came down to how teacher licensure was explained to these students at their previous higher education institutions. I learned of the impending conflict via email prior to their orientation after I requested confirmation of their majors and prior degrees. Regardless of who was at fault, I knew I was walking into a room with very frustrated students. Walking in was nerve-wracking; however, I knew that, in order to walk out of the room with happy students, I needed to be positive–and most importantly, empathetic. It would have been easy to walk in, point fingers at their previous institution for providing false information, or even blame the students for not being aware of their own education process. Doing so would have not accomplished much. Instead, I walked in the room, sat down, and said in a very casual manner, “So, what’s up?”

I felt the tension in the room dissipate. The new transfer students, one at a time, briefly discussed their frustrations. After they were able to purge their feelings, we got down to business. They asked questions; I answered. Since I had placed them in small groups, they were able to bounce ideas off one another. As a group, we problem solved. I provided students with pre-made academic plans and asked for their thoughts and concerns. We fixed what needed adjusting and moved forward with individualized plans that each student was comfortable with–and, most importantly, confident in.

Non-Traditional Transfer Students

Any higher education professional will agree that working with an 18-year-old student is much different from working with a 43-year-old student. In fact, working with an 18-year-old student can be much different from working with a 20-year-old student. I once had a professor tell me that the difference between a young student and an adult student has nothing to do with age, but life experience. The young student arrives in your office wide-eyed, terrified and excited, with very few expectations for the upcoming years. The adult student arrives in your office wide-eyed, terrified and excited, with strong expectations and goals for the upcoming years because of their life experience. The adult student, whether 37 or 22, has experienced something that made them grow up, be accountable, and accept future responsibility.

Non-traditional transfer students, as diverse as they may be, often have an established goal with some measure of a plan as to how they will achieve it. I have found the complication in working with non-traditional transfer students is a matter of time—many have been in and out of various institutions throughout their adult years and just want to finish. I have learned, in working with non-traditional transfer students, to remind them to focus on their goal, not on how long it will take to achieve it. If their goal is to earn their degree as quickly as possible, I can certainly advise them to explore majors in other colleges on campus. However, if their goal is to become a great, effective, state-licensed teacher, we can have a conversation about the whole process of becoming a teacher. I can also discuss with them how their life lessons and their personal life experiences will help them as a teacher and as a coworker in the educational system.

Private-to-Public School Transfer Students

As mentioned above, Middle Tennessee State University (like many other higher education institutions across the United States) has transfer agreements with various community colleges to accommodate students that wanted to start small before entering a four-year institution and/or those that want take advantage of the Tennessee Promise. However, there are no agreements or preparation plans for students who transfer from a private institution to a four-year state public institution. These students may have transferred for a number of reasons: because of tuition costs; to be closer to home; because of unexpected life events; or like me, they went to the private institution for a specific major and the major didn’t work out.

Students transferring from private to public are immediately overwhelmed. They are overwhelmed by the campus size, the registration process, the amount of classes offered, class sizes–everything. It is incredibly important to sit down with the student and have a personal conversation with them, to make sure they don’t feel like a number. A few weeks back, I had a transfer student from a small bible college out west arrive in my office. I could immediately sense that she was overwhelmed: she was ready to run out the door and never look back. After looking through her transcript, I was able to have a conversation with her about religion and moving from a small community to a large, diverse city. I was then able to move the conversation to one of her Social Behavior course requirements, Religion and Society, where we shared personal stories and discussed why that particular course would be interesting for her. The student left my office excited about her next adventure, and has stayed in communication with me quite a bit since arriving.


During my time working with transfer students, I have seen two types walk through the door when arriving on campus. One student is excited about the upcoming semester, ready to take on the challenges, and put their past experiences behind them. The other student sees transferring as a failure. They feel like they’ve failed because their initial plan at their initial institution, for whatever reason, did not work out. All students must have the opportunity to understand that faculty and administration will support, advocate for and guide each student to achieve their goals. In order for an institution to achieve retention, persistence and graduation goals, students must feel that we care about their higher education experiences. To do this, we must build a rapport with each of our students and genuinely invest in their future.

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