COVID-19 forces a closer look at the transfer student experience

The coronavirus pandemic is poised to put the nation’s college transfer process to the test as strained family finances and uncertainty about the fall semester prompt students to change their postsecondary plans. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently shared the story of Naudia Johnson, a New Jersey native who began her first year at Florida’s Johnson & Wales University but is now unlikely to return to the North Miami school; instead, Johnson hopes to transfer to Stockton University in New Jersey to save money and be near family. Johnson, the Chronicle notes, is just one example of “the flood of transfers” to less-expensive public regional four- and two-year colleges that’s likely as students see their funds dry up, become disenchanted with online learning, or seek to stay closer to home. 

An influx of transfer activity, however, will put “more pressure on enrollment-hungry institutions to fix a long-broken system,” given that, under the current setup, “every pivot in a student’s education path opens up cracks where credits can fall through.” Transfer students lose, on average, 43 percent of their credits in switching schools, according to 2017 data from the U.S. General Accounting Office. The setbacks add time and expense, increasing students’ risk of dropping out. 

Greater need for clarity, flexibility 

Janet L. Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, says there needs to be added focus on advising as students consider transferring. “It may make sense for some current freshmen to come home and take core courses at the local community college with the intent of transferring back,” she told The Chronicle. “But it’s important for students to have clarity on which courses will transfer” and apply toward their degrees. 

While some schools, especially within states, have established agreements articulating which courses transfer between schools, there’s often less efficiency and transparency when transferring across state lines. Some schools’ switch to pass/fail grading this semester also may complicate matters, as could delayed responses to transcript requests. Four-year institutions also must create a process that balances their desire to help students who want to transfer against the college’s need to maintain enrollment levels and ensure students stay on track.   

Still, John Mullane, president and founder of the research and advocacy group College Transfer Solutions, says he believes the pandemic will lead to improvements. “If this problem doesn’t get fixed now,” he told the Chronicle, “then it may never get fixed.”

Similarly, Joshua Wyner, vice president at the Aspen Institute, says the transfer process is a key opportunity presented by the current COVID-19 crisis. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, he urges colleges and universities to “maximize the credits students can transfer,” adding that ”anything less will fail to honor students’ prior learning at a time when they most need support.” 

In April, six higher education organizations created a list of guidelines that universities should consider when accepting credits from transfer students. The principles, they said, “reflect an expectation that all institutions see the current situation as a unique one that may not be well served by policies and practices that seemed appropriate even just weeks ago.” 

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