Four Investments to Decrease College Transfers


We live in a mobile world — mobile homes, mobile phones, mobile apps…and now more than ever, mobile college students. I just met with an informal focus group and every one of them was attending a different college than the one they first entered. My son was one of them. We dropped him off in California this month to finish his last two years of college. The truth is: This is becoming normal.­

One-third of all students switch institutions at least once before earning a degree, says a report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The “traditional” path of entering and graduating from the same institution is decreasingly followed, the report says. Students transfer across state lines and institution types, and even “reverse transfer” from four-year to two-year colleges.

The report — “Transfer and Mobility: A National View of Pre-Degree Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions,” published in partnership with Indiana University’s Project on Academic Success — examines students’ increasingly complex transfer patterns. It looks at nearly 2.8 million full- and part-time students of all ages, at all institutional types, over a five-year period beginning in 2006.

In college sports, some call it an epidemic. There is an escalating number of Division I players transferring colleges during the course of their careers. NCAA president Mark Emmert even put together a subcommittee to study the issue. The list of college basketball transfers compiled annually by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reached a record 625 for the 2014 offseason.

Why Is It Happening?

If you stop and consider the issue, it makes sense, doesn’t it?

1. Many high school graduates are pushed into expensive schools by parents or guidance counselors before they even know what direction they want to go. Often, they pull out, transferring to a less expensive community college to figure it out.

2. We’ve raised kids to be opportunists not loyalists. Many watched a parent climb the corporate ladder for thirty years and then get laid off. In response, they decided they would seize the best opportunity when it arises. It’s about their best interests.

3. Most college students change their major more than once. When they do, they often find a more suitable school for their new major. This often leads to lengthened college experiences and larger tuition debt upon graduation.

4. Many students want to see the world, and moving to a college overseas gives them a chance to kill two birds with one stone. I know several students who are now at Oxford University in England in a shared-study program. How cool is that?

5. Finally, many of the transfer students actually began in a Junior College (JUCO), finished their general education, then moved to a four-year institution to focus on their major area of study. Financially, this is actually a wise move.

Four Ideas to Respond Well

For many colleges, this reality has sparked staff positions or committees who work on student retention. First Year Programs are now in place all over the country, helping schools to “keep” their precious customer. The following are fundamentals staff and coaches must practice to retain our students:

1. We must ask ourselves: What do they really need and want?

We must ask what every boss does when she has a high turnover rate among employees: What am I not doing well that they wish I did? This requires intuition about the needs of adolescents as well as research on what they most value in their life station. Since this is a moving target, we must commit to asking good questions. Action Step: Increase your informal surveys; spend time in focus groups seeking ideas.

2. We must add unique value to the student.

Very often, it is not the courses students take that push them away. It’s the overall experience. Each school must differentiate itself by adding value to students that other institutions rarely do: benefits, connections after graduation, guidance, job placement, community, relevant equipping, etc.

Action Step: Most student leaders tell me they need better leadership development. Give them tools they’ll use forever.

3. We must fill their emotional tank.

You likely know this, but problems among students are increasingly emotional or mental health issues. The number one word students use to describe their life is: overwhelmed. Schools must find ways to help them become emotional healthy. Only when they are, can they handle the academic rigors of higher education.

Action Step: Invest in your student leaders more than you ask them to invest. Make emotional deposits.

4. We must provide developmental relationships.

The numbers tell us: Students register at college for what it offers but quit because of the people. On the other hand, they usually stay when mentoring relationships are formed on campus. Valuable relationships make all the difference in the world. These can’t be forced, but they can be fostered, by creating healthy communities. The best ones may be with alumni in your city.

Action Step: It’s hard to leave a relevant and helpful mentor. Be sure these happen.

When I shared this list with the student focus group, each one said, “If a college did that, I’d stay.” These kinds of investments are fundamental to health and retention.


Habitudes for the Journey: The Art of Navigating TransitionsHBJ

Specialized curriculum that is ideal for First Year Experience programs to help students connect with & transition to campuses.

Four Investments to Decrease College Transfers