Which transfer student support services are you missing?

July 7, 2020
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • Reverse Transfer
  • Transfer and Articulation
  • Transfer Credit Practices
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by Dr. Alicia Moore,  AACRAO Senior Consultant

Whether one calls it transfer, swirl, mobility, or some new, yet-to-be-seen nomenclature, the concept of students attending multiple institutions, whether simultaneously or for different periods, is no longer new. John Gardner referred to collegiate student transfer as “the new normal” in 2012 and AACRAO held its first transfer conference four years before that. Moreover, with 33% of all undergraduates transferring at least one time during their academic career (NSC 2012), why do institutions still struggle to court, let alone support, this population?

To better understand this population, this article touches upon data describing a typical transfer student, provides an overview of academic agreements to provide more seamless transfer pathways, and provides insights on institutional policy and practices that will not only support transfer students, but help them to be a vibrant part of your campus fabric.

Who are transfer students?

The National Student Clearinghouse (Hossler, et al, 2012), along with Noel-Levitz (2013), conducted in depth research to better understand transfer students. Do they share common demographics? Educational patterns? Transfer patterns? Highlights of this research includes:
  • 40 percent of all transfer students did not complete Algebra II in high school.
  • 32 percent of all transfer students – regardless if they started at a community college or university – earned more than 20 credits prior to their first transfer.
  • The largest number of students transfer in their second year of college, although many transfer at years four or five.
  • A relatively equal percent of all transfer students attend full time versus part time.
  • Transfer students report a far less sense of connection at their transfer institution, both with peer students and the institution itself.
  • Transfer students actively seek out advising at their transfer institution more than other services.

Understanding some of these data points will help institutions shape institutional policies and practices to best support this population.

The importance of academic partnership agreements

As transfer students become a substantially larger percent of all undergraduates nationwide, it is imperative that institutions look beyond traditional course-to-course articulation agreements. Pursuing more robust partnership will provide seamless transfer opportunities and build partnerships among transfer institutions – all in the name of achieving greater student success. A brief description of such partnerships is provided as a starting point for greater institutional conversations.

Dual Credit: Dual credit programs are college-level classes taught in a high school for high school students. Dual credit classes are taught typically by a high school instructor who meets the same requirements as if they were teaching at the college or university transcribing the course. Dual credit courses must meet the same course outcomes as the course being taught at the higher education institution.
Program Articulation:  Program-level articulation agreements take place between two institutions who agree that a set of courses will transfer either to or between specific programs. In some cases, a community college may offer the lower-division courses and a university partner offers upper-division courses. A growing trend, however, is between peer institutions who share a program, but offer distinct classes supporting certificate or degree completion.
2 + 2 Agreements: 2 + 2 agreements occur between a community college and university partner in which the student takes the first two years of required courses at the community college and then transfers directly to a university for an additional two years. At the end of the university’s two years, the student has met all requirements for their degree.
Dual Admission:  Dual admission programs enable a student to be admitted to both a community college and university at the same time, take classes at both institutions, and in more robust programs, select from which institution they wish to receive financial aid, including scholarships.
Reverse Transfer: The primary concept behind reverse transfer programs is that a community college student transfers prior to completing an associate’s degree and completes remaining associate degree requirements at the university. The university transfers the credits back to the community college who then awards the student their associate’s degree.
The above definitions create just a small glimpse into the many different academic partnership programs to support seamless transfer for students, all with student completion as the end goal. Each are far more nuanced and worth a much deeper review to build the best program possible.

7 ways to support transfer students

Developing robust academic partnerships certainly eases a transfer student’s admissions and advising experiences, but such partnerships alone are not enough. Instead, transfer-friendly institutions should provide customized support services to help students throughout their journey. A sampling of such support services is provided below, noting that this is only a brief listing of how to best serve this growing and unique population.

1. Transfer Articulation : If an institution can do nothing else to support transfer students, it should ensure that students know how their credits will transfer, preferably before or concurrent with admissions. Having this information in hand sends an early message that an institution cares about transfer students and removes the guesswork many transfer students face in determining the institution of their choice. Further, how courses apply to an institution’s certificate or degree helps transfer students determine the most expeditious pathway to graduation and whether your institution can meet their completion goals.
2. Specialized Scholarships: Offering first-year student scholarships is typical at many institutions. However, relatively few provide financial supporting targeting transfer students. Therefore, colleges and universities are encouraged to dedicate a portion of institutional or foundation aid to support transfer students as they, too, face financial hardships that often prevent goal completion. 
3. Orientation: Orientation programs are a key element in helping students understand an institution’s culture, classroom expectation, opportunities for engagement and so much more. While it is important to integrate transfer students into your institution’s traditional orientation, it is also equally important to dedicate time in which they can also connect with peer transfer students. Doing so provides students with a sense of connection to and identity with their peers.
4. Academic Advising:  Transfer students bring with them a predetermined knowledge of different policies, practices, and certificate or degree requirements. However, that knowledge is often specific to their previous institutions and as such, transfer students struggle with adjusting to new ways to being. Therefore, it is critically important that the advising process helps students navigate different policies and expectations, serving as a translator from one institution to the next. 
5. Transfer Student Workshops and Information: Many have heard the expression “transfer shock,” a sentiment in which transfer students are so surprised at their new environment that their academic performance suffers, they withdraw from their peers, and express a sense of isolation. Institutions who truly wish to support transfer students are encouraged to reach out to transfer students to provide them with information on everything from parking, to getting involved on campus, to student success tips, and more. Here’s the key: While information may be the same for all students, recognizing transfer students as a unique population through language choice, specialized web pages, or dedicated in person workshops conveys that your institution values them as a unique population.
6. Mentor Programs: The majority of institutions have a handful of sister institutions to which their students transfer. In these cases, consider building partnerships in which a former student returns and serves as a mentor to students considering transfer. This can be as simple as a one-time workshop to discuss tips about transferring or an on-going program to build stronger connections.
7. Transfer Student Seminars: Modeled after a first-year seminar, transfer student seminars help students ease the challenges associated with transfer shock, including information on institutional policies, student success strategies, career planning, campus engagement opportunities and more. 

Parting Thoughts

In sharing these ideas and concepts in other settings, the inevitable comment arises:  “But we need more staff to do all of this.”  While that may be true if an institution wishes to adopt all of these practices, many can be done by making simple adjustments. For example, instead of one communication designed to address all students, create two communications, one targeting traditional students and one towards transfer students. A second example: Instead of offering four career planning workshops, offer three for all students and one for transfer students; Instead of ten group advising sessions open to all students, offer eight to traditional students and two or transfer; and the list goes on.  These types of adjustments can be applied across many support services and in the end, the goal is the same: Creating a greater sense of belonging and connection enables students to success. This can only happen if an institution recognizes – and embraces – their student body. 

Questions?  Contact AACRAO Consulting at consulting@aacrao.org or 202-355-1056.


Clemetsen, B., Furbeck, L., & Moore, A. (2013 October). "Enabling student swirl: Understanding the data and best practices for supporting transfer students." SEM Quarterly . https://www.aacrao.org/research-publications/quarterly-journals/sem-quarterly/article/volume-1/issue-3/enabling-student-swirl-understanding-the-data-and-best-practices-for-supporting-transfer-students.

Gardner, J. N. (2012). "The new normal – transfer students in the majority: How can we serve them more effectively?" Keynote address presented at the New York Transfer Summit, multiple sites, New York.

Hossler, D., D. Shapiro, A. Dundar, M. Ziskin, J. Chen, D. Zerquera, & V. Torres. 2012. Transfer & Mobility: A National View of Pre-Degree Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions. Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  


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