Field Notes - Barriers and Blunders in the Transfer Process

August 9, 2021
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • Re-Envisioning Transfer
  • field notes

"Field Notes" is a regular 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 Thomas J. Grites, Assistant Provost (Ret), Stockton University


Recent reports reveal the plight of the nation’s ever-growing population of transfer students. Some highlights include:

  • Only 14% of community college transfers earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering higher education

  • Students lose, on average, 43% of their credits when transferring

  • An estimated 6.6 million students have “stranded” credits that are not provided due to financial balances due at their previous institution(s)

  • Institutional policies might necessitate repeating courses for which credit has already been awarded 

  • Transfer students do not have the same (or equivalent) financial aid opportunities as first-time-in-college students

Embedded within these data lies a range of barriers that further exacerbate the difficulty in the transfer process, including:

  • Inadequate communication methods to inform students of their credit evaluations, both in accuracy and in timeliness

  • Inadequate academic advising by both institutions in the transfer process

  • Lack of clearly identified “pathways” for all degree programs

  • Possible limitations to engage in student development opportunities

  • Lack of clarity and understanding of academic expectations

  • The absence of a demonstrable campus-wide culture of transfer

The above factors manifest themselves in the multitude of differences that transfer students face when they arrive on their new campuses, such as:

  • Campus geography

  • Vocabulary/nomenclature

  • Academic Policies and Procedures

  • Academic Standards and Faculty Expectations

  • Academic advising structures

  • An unknown (     ), i.e., invisible, peer group

  • Course Scheduling Procedures

  • Campus Resources

  • Residence Life (if applicable)

  • Campus Culture and Traditions

While most of the research studies, reports, and other literature tend to focus on the traditional linear (2-year to 4-year) transfer student population, the same conditions can easily be applied to other transfer populations as well. Each student leaves one academic and social environment and moves into a different one, so adaptations and adjustments must be re-learned, unlearned, and/or newly learned under a new set of conditions.

Common Blunders

The blunders referred to in the title can occur at either institution and/or by individual students. Institutional leaders, faculty, staff, and other students might simply opt to ignore this population, that is, in relation to that of the first-time-in-college students. Unfortunately, we know why this discrepancy exists – transfer students are normally not included in the primary metrics that matter to institutions, i.e., retention and graduation rates, which provide the basis for rankings, funding, etc.

Another common blunder is equity in funding for resources concerning first-time-in-college students. Institutions do not always regard, or even realize, that transfer students are also first-time-in-college (their new one) students and need, expect, and deserve the same quality of recruitment and orientation efforts. In focusing heavily on the metrics used to meet the primary standards noted above, transfer students tend to be left out of the funding equation. This inequity can often result in a more difficult transition that further risks lower retention and graduation rates. Higher rates are valuable assets to the new institution, irrespective of how they count in the metrics. 

Although they certainly have no obligation or benefit from assisting students who want to transfer, the sending institution should also facilitate a successful transfer. After all, the student has decided to leave, and the same personnel who assist transfer students upon entry and persistence are likely to be involved in the “transfer out” process in some way as well. Leaving the student with a favorable last impression could certainly result in future positive referrals at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, or even a return by the same student.

Finally, transfer students themselves – often inadvertently – err in the process of transferring. By delaying their decision to transfer, by failing to begin the process of sending transcripts from all institutions attended (as part of the application) and again when the final grades (degrees) are included at the most recent institution, by failing to clear obligations that prevent transcripts being sent at all (creating stranded credits), or by failing to take the initiative to verify the applicability of earned credit and other new conditions are blunders that will often result in a delay (or even a breakdown) of the transfer process.

Improving the Process

Improvements in reducing the barriers and blunders in the transfer process are certainly being implemented in many institutions and states. There is also more of a national focus on the transfer process and the students affected by it developing via the Tackling Transfer Policy Advisory Board, which is comprised of members from several independent higher education organizations. The Board has recently released (2021) its initial report: The Transfer Reset Rethinking Equitable Policy for Today’s Learners. The report includes 14 State and System Recommendations and six Federal and National Recommendations addressing the harnessing of data, maximizing credit, and advancing finance and financial aid. The report also includes the following strategies that policymakers should:

1. Develop strong coalitions that build a case for and elevate transfer as a priority linked to broader student success and economic development reforms. 

2. Activate transfer students to demand change. 

3. Cultivate transfer champions who can propel change. 

4. Keep stakeholders committed. (p. 6). 

Hopefully, these outcomes will be readily recognized in the near future.

Part 2 of this sequence will address the transitional efforts that institutions and students can explore to avoid the kinds of barriers and blunders described above.

Interested in transfer? Visit our Re-Envisioning Transfer page to learn about the work we do and see upcoming opportunities to join the transfer conversation.