(The New York Times, 15 April 2011)

ABOUT a third of students change campuses on their way to a degree, but it’s often a bumpier ride than they expect.

Most application deadlines for transfer students are in March or April, and some as late as summer — July 1 for the University of Albany, for example. Applicants won’t find out if they’ve won a place until the dust settles on returning students, usually mid-May or later.

That puts transfers behind the curve of returning students, who have already registered for the most popular classes or populated the best rooms in the spring housing lottery.

How can you avoid feeling as if you’re last in line when you change schools?


Twenty-three percent of colleges don’t provide merit aid for transfer students, according to a 2010 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Those that do often give them less — especially if the transferring is in January, when coffers tend to be depleted. And colleges that pledge to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for freshmen don’t always make the same assurances to transfer applicants. In fact, there’s a greater chance that needing aid as a transfer will influence whether a college admits you. That’s the case at Brown and Wesleyan, even though they are need-blind when considering freshmen.

The picture isn’t grim across the board, though: there are universities — Smith College and Syracuse University are two — that commit to providing transfer students with equal funds. Syracuse, a private university with up to 15 percent of undergraduates having made a switch, considers itself transfer friendly. In addition to articulation agreements it has with community colleges to ease the transition, the university in November signed dual admission agreements with Onondaga Community College in Syracuse and Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, its state’s largest public two-year institution.

Such “2+2 programs” are a growing trend: freshmen who want to start at a two-year college — either because of money or academic concerns — are guaranteed admission to the four-year institution as juniors if they maintain certain grades. And as part of those agreements, Syracuse will estimate aid packages for potential transfers two years in advance.

Donald A. Saleh, vice president for enrollment management at Syracuse, says it doesn’t hurt for other applicants to ask for a similarly detailed estimate before applying: “If a student were to approach us and ask us for help in understanding their financial aid, we would be ready to do the same thing for them.”

Public institutions inundated by applications may not be so accommodating. In these cases, transfers won’t learn what financial aid they will get until they’ve been accepted, which might not be until summer.

The City University of New York, for example, saw 27,800 transfer applications for fall 2010, almost 24 percent more than the year before. By the time the admissions office had processed its Feb. 1 priority deadline applications, CUNY’s senior colleges were at capacity. Forty percent of transfer applications arrived after that deadline, and qualified students were, atypically, waitlisted. Some weren’t admitted until two weeks before classes started, in August.

Apply early and to more than one place. “You need to build choices for yourself,” Mr. Saleh says. “If you apply to four colleges and get into three, you can go for the best fit academically, socially and financially.”


A big appeal of transferring is getting to take classes not available at your current college. But transfer students can find themselves toiling at required courses instead because courses already taken don’t match up with the academic program at the campus they want to go to.

“You’ve got to keep your eye on what is transferable and what requirements are being covered by the courses you’ve already taken,” says Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you’re coming in absolutely cold on foreign language, right there you’re going to have to take four classes at Penn because we have a foreign language requirement.”

Very often, credits at one institution don’t apply toward a major or fulfill core requirements at another. Colleges won’t give the official word on what they will accept until they have an enrollment deposit in hand. Applicants can ask transfer admissions advisers for a sense of what additional work is needed to complete a particular major. If facing too many required courses, consider somewhere else.

“We have conversations with prospective students all the time,” says Curtis Rodgers, dean of enrollment management at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, for nontraditional-age students. “Often the problems that transfer students face have to do with not having reviewed their options.”

A community college that has an articulation agreement with a state university spells out what courses count for its degree. Still, study the fine print.

Brianne Giger, an acting major who recently transferred to the University of Arizona, took a computer science class because it fulfilled a math requirement at her community college. “The book was $300, and it was really hard,” she says. “As soon as I got here, they told me it was only going to count as an elective.”

Articulation agreements change and are confusing enough that even advisers are known to give students misinformation, says Peter Riley Bahr, an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. So, he urges, always get a second opinion on whether your course schedule puts you on track to transfer into the program you want.

“Talk to your community college counselor,” he says, “then call the four-year institution you want to transfer to and speak with an adviser there as well.”


Many universities — the University of Vermont and the University of Pittsburgh, for example — guarantee on-campus housing for upperclassmen but not for transfers. Or transfers end up in less desirable dorms. Penn State automatically places students from other universities in “supplemental housing,” one oversize room for four to eight students.

When you must live off-campus, go to the transfer orientation. Flagship publics that bring in a thousand or more transfer students a year typically schedule several orientations throughout the summer. For the most housing choices, “attend the earliest orientation you can,” says Eva Rivas, executive director of the Transfer, Re-entry and Student Parent Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Landlords will publicize their buildings through the transfer center, and transfer counselors and other students can let you know how close to campus different places are.”


Once on campus, be prepared to advocate for the experience you want.

“When you’re a transfer student, everyone in your grade is feeling settled in,” says Elizabeth Daly, director of orientation and parent programs at Northwestern University. “So you have to be the kind of person who reaches out and introduces yourself.”

Becky Keith transferred to the University of Virginia from Georgetown University in 2008, but her new life didn’t fall into place instantly. Virginia officials told Ms. Keith, a biochemistry major aiming for med school, that she would have to take a first-year biology lab class even though she had already taken one. (At Georgetown, Intro to Bio includes labs; at Virginia, it’s two separate courses.)

She felt invisible in Virginia’s large science classes. And she ended up in a dorm with five other transfers that was “not the best experience,” she says, because it didn’t help her meet other students.

But she made the effort. She brought her Georgetown biology syllabus to the dean’s office and won credit for the labs she had taken there. She visited professors during office hours, and met new friends volunteering with an emergency medical technician unit.

This year, she’s living in a dorm that mixes transfers and returning students, a new housing setup Virginia is trying. Now, she says, “I’ve found my niche.”

Read this article at the New York Times.