Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

College Transfers: Why or Why Not?

“There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” – Winston Churchill.


Your college freshman is home for Thanksgiving or winter break. He or she seems happy to be home, but not so eager to return to school for spring semester. Sometime between handing you an oversized duffle of filthy laundry, recovering from final exam sleep debt, gobbling up Mom comfort food as an alternative to pizza, playing with pets, lighting the Menorah, trimming the Christmas tree, or shoveling snow, your son or daughter suddenly announces: “I think I want to transfer.”

Don’t panic. Just listen.

madroomatesDr. Allen Grove, professor and director of a program to help students transition to college, also writes the Guide to College Admissions. In two excellent articles, he outlines: 5 Good Reasons to Transfer to a Different College and 5 Bad Reasons to Transfer. Grove’s five reasons that justify transfer are: financial necessity, academic upgrade, specialized major (I would include sports or arts programs), family obligations, or social situation (I would include overall atmosphere). Five “bad” (misguided) reasons to change schools are: love, your school is too hard, you’re homesick, you hate your roommate, or you hate your professors. I will comment on the reasons that are not self-explanatory.

hippiedanceSocial situation that justifies transfer would be a true mismatch between a student’s temperament and a school’s overall atmosphere. Obvious examples: a serious student feels overwhelmed by a toxic, 24/7 partying environment, or a teen who enjoys work/play balance feels too pressured in a fiercely competitive pre-professional school. Less obvious examples: a teen with a conservative upbringing is painfully disconnected on a far-left campus; a student of color feels no sense of community in a school lacking diversity; an individual from a cosmopolitan area feels too isolated from entertainment venues on a remote rural campus; a student who is wild about spectator sports feels unsatisfied in a school with no athletics emphasis; a teen from a small, close-knit high school feels lost in a huge, anonymous public institution.

leftoutWe are not talking about minor adjustments. A key college growth challenge is learning to adapt to new situations and appreciating people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. But most of us have been in environments at some point in life where we felt completely misplaced, like a fish out of water. That’s what I’m talking about. College is such a highlight of a person’s life, where one finds lifelong friends, forms key dating relationships or chooses a spouse, and selects one’s young adult career. Not to mention it is a huge financial investment, perhaps sixty grand a year. Why spend four years in a place where you are not thriving and may be absolutely miserable?

It is essential to listen deeply to your student’s explanation of the overall situation, weighing it against your student’s general emotional resilience, psychological stability, and social adaptability. Your student’s particular emotional sensibilities may indeed suggest a different college environment, but do not rule out the possibility that he or she may not be ready to go away to college at all. It is possible that a year at a community college may be a better bet than transferring to another four-year university where some of the same difficulties are likely to arise.

awakeboyOne tricky, self-deceptive reason for transfer is being in love. Young people under twenty-one are still wrestling with the intensity of raging hormones, in conflict with the yet not fully mature frontal lobe that controls executive function and decision-making. This reality is described in lay terms in The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids by Barbara Strauch. Worse, an older adolescent’s identity is still in tremendous flux, when it comes to academic and career interests as well as key relationships (or even sexual identity). Erik Eriksen asserted that the capstone developmental task of adolescence is forming an authentic identity, during which a young person may be vulnerable and confused until fully establishing his or her own individuality.

closeddoorNavigating this morass effectively requires educating oneself in an environment that offers many alternatives to explore, for fields of study, career options, or friendship and dating opportunities. Limiting oneself too soon in any area is frequently viewed as a mistake, or at least an unfortunate sub-optimization, decades later. Am I saying that one should never make an educational or professional decision with a “significant other” in mind? No, but generally college is too early, because a student is still building the foundation of his or her personal, academic and career equity. And while rare, long distance relationships can work; I know several lifelong happily married couples who have proven it.

An overall theme of these five good, five bad reasons to transfer is: only transfer for “big picture” reasons that can’t be changed by staying. If  a student doesn’t get along with one roommate, get another. But if a student can’t stand the whole campus culture, or the family cannot afford the school, or the institution does not offer enough courses in one’s desired major, it makes sense to consider transferring.

laptopbeardboyWhen is a good time to transfer? Every individual situation is unique. However, generally, I would say that if the transfer bomb is dropped in the middle of your freshman’s fall semester, try to persuade your son or daughter to hang on and see how he or she feels during winter break after some distance and reflection. It takes some students longer to settle in at college; for some freshmen, it is simply the stress of fall exams and papers talking. If thoughtful discussion at home during winter break identifies some of the reasons described in this post that would justify transfer, it is probably time to act. Colleges’ transfer deadlines vary, but usually they are the first of March for the following fall (financial aid deadlines may be earlier). If transferring seems like a probable outcome of your freshman’s struggle, encourage your student to (1) maintain a strong GPA to preserve the flexibility to transfer and (2) research the transfer alternatives carefully, such that the transfer actually solves the problem your student is experiencing.