Do transfer students really need hand-holding?

September 8, 2015
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Transfer and Articulation

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at 

By Wendolyn Davis, Assistant Director of Transfer Student Services, Central Michigan University

“Of the 3.6 million students who entered college for the first time in fall 2008, over one third (37.2 percent) transferred to a different institution at least once within six years. Of these, almost half changed their institution more than once (45 percent). Counting multiple moves, the students made 2.4 million transitions from one institution to another from 2008 to 2014.” (Shapiro, Dundar, Wakhungu, Yuan, & Harrell, 2015)

Some years ago a professor stated that he could tell within the first week, which students came from a community college. On occasion I have heard the term hand holding in reference to the expectations of transfer students who primarily transitioning from the public 2-year institution to the 4-year institution. While working with higher education professionals and working in higher education I have also heard statements such as, “I shouldn’t have to tell them when they need a tutor. They should know that for themselves” or “It’s not my job to direct them to supportive services. What do they want me to do, hold their hand to the office? Ridiculous!”

The national student clearinghouse research indicated that approximately 51.5% of students who transfer from a 4-yr public or private postsecondary institution, transfer to a 2-year public institution. These numbers represented all students who moved from one institution to the other, which means this could just be summer enrollment, those with academic dismissals and suspensions, and those who transferred for other reasons. The numbers did not include dually enrolled students.

Is it really "hand-holding" that transfer students need?

Experience as a transfer student and experience with transfer students is what drives this question. The transfer rate of students from a 4-year institution moving to the 2-year institution could be indicative of a different type of need. Proposedly, whether they are a first time in any college (FTIAC) student or a transfer student, most students don’t require hand holding as much as they need support transitioning from their initial academic institution to their current 4-year institution, hence the First Year Experience, College Success Seminars, and the like, that exist in many post-secondary institutions.

Transfer student experiences can provide some additional insight. I recently read a blog from a new transfer student who wrote that he was offended by the amount of direction and instruction he was offered from his new 4-year institution. He felt that he was already a student and could navigate independently. It is important to mention that he had not actually begun attending his classes and would be a commuter to the campus. The responses from his readers, some who were transfer students, suggested that he would change his mind when he got into the thick of things and that he should be appreciative of the direction, as it was not representative of most 4-year institutions.

As a former transfer student, although a non-traditional student, I found that I was not as knowledgeable about the university resources as were my returning student counterparts. Supportive services was not a familiar term. I generally found direction by accident or from overhearing conversations in a lounge or eating area. I didn’t feel like I was really a part of the university because it felt as though the returning students, those who were initially FTIACS, were part of an exclusive group. My perception was that I could not be a part of that group because I had not been wise enough to have begun my journey as a freshman, and I was nontraditional.

Additionally, different from the blog writer, the experiences relayed from other transfer students have been similar to my experience. I’ve learned from other transfer students that they don’t like students or professors to know that they are transfer students because they are then treated as less than competent in comparison to their peers. The fear of being “outed” discouraged them from speaking to their professors, believing it would exacerbate the perception of limited scholastic ability.

What is a realistic expectation from university staff and faculty?

It is often presumed that students who have completed courses at a community college “should” know more than an incoming freshman in terms of navigating through the college or university services. This would seem to be an unsupported presumption because even students who transfer from one university to another will not understand the lay of their new land. The age of the transfer student, although going up, is anecdotally between 19 – 22 years old. I see as many helicopter and bulldozer parents with transfer students as I do with freshman. This is an additional indication that these students are not as different from freshman as some might treat them. 

The suggestion is that interactions should be the same for incoming freshman with no college courses, incoming freshman with advanced standing, incoming freshman who were Middle/Early college students, and transfer students. Each student is new to the university. Treat them as though they need basic guidance to student support services or to the office that can direct them further.

Part of what I enjoy about higher education is the ideology that treating every student with dignity and respect, and showing a willingness to direct them for assistance, has been the goal of every post-secondary institution that I have encountered professionally. Therefore, I suggest that hand holding is not the need of transfer students. Direction, guidance, and advice doesn’t represent hand holding; instead, it is representative of staff and faculty responsibility, as we continue to recruit and work diligently to retain our student populations through to degree completion.


Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Yuan, X., Harrell, A. & Wakhungu, P.K. (2014, November). Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates - Fall 2008 (Signature Report No. 8). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Retrieved from