Transfer students: Who, where and why?

Assessing transfer credit is “as easy as baking a multi-layered, multi-fruit pie from scratch -- without an oven,” said Seth Kamen, Director of Transfer and Prior Learning Design at Montgomery College. Kamen, co-presenting at the “Foundations of Transfer” preconference workshop at AACRAO #TechTransfer17.

Transfer students are notoriously hard to define, which can make it difficult to know how to serve their needs. Although recent research has helped to explore who transfer students are and when, where, and why they transfer, most of those studies focus on niches within transfer, because the general transfer population is so diverse.

Who are transfer students?

In the public consciousness, the term “transfer students” typically refers to students moving from two- to four-year institutions. But in practice, transfer encompasses a much broader range of students. At the workshop, co-presenter Katie Schwienteck, York College Pennsylvania’s

Director of Transfer Admissions, helped participants conceptualize the breadth of transfer identities beyond the conventional 2-to-4 year track.  They include:

Swirling students -- Students who attend multiple institutions, sometimes a variety of schools, including 2 and 4 year schools and back again.

“It’s ok to ask ‘what are you doing?’” Schwienteck said. “Why are they transferring so much? Sometimes there’s an issue that needs to be resolved, and by asking, you can help the student find the resources on campus that he or she needs. Asking that question opens the door.”

Adult students -- Students coming to the table with valuable experience and don’t want to have to take the fundamentals they already know.

“These students are often good candidates for prior learning credit,” Schwienteck said. “And they have work and life commitments that they’re working around, and so may have unique needs that need to be met in terms of that.”

Military students -- Includes veterans, active-duty members, and spouse or family members with military benefits. These students may be serial transferers because of their military moves, and they’ll have issues around tuition assistance, the GI bill, and getting credit with a the Joint Services Transcript (JST), which documents their military training.


“Often these students are interested in service-based opportunities, and may not want a freshman orientation experience,” Schwienteck said.

High school students -- often from dual enrollment, college in high school, or early graduate or early college partnership programs.

Co-presenter Lee Furbeck, Cleveland State University, then lead a discussion investigating the various, and sometimes surprising, reasons that students transfer, and noting that transfer happens in all directions: vertical (from 2 to 4 year institutions); lateral (2-to-2 or 4-to-4 year); and reverse (4-to-2).

Furbeck delineated a variety of transfer enrollment patterns, including:

Trial and supplemental -- students who stay at a school but enroll in a course at another school (possibly online) concurrently.

  • Accelerate progress to degree -- students who are consumer savvy and find they can take courses elsewhere to stay on track or save money.
  • Stop gap to intended institution -- students who start with the intention to transfer all along.
  • Consolidated and special program -- students looking to take advantage of an opportunity offered elsewhere.
  • Serial transfers -- students who move from institution to institution. These students may not understand higher education very well and may need help with goal setting.
  • Non-degree seeking -- students who seek personal enrichment.

The workshop also delved into best practices, transfer credit assessment, prior learning credit, and more, and emphasized the importance of institutional buy-in when it comes to supporting transfer students.