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There May Still Be Time for a "Pandemic Transfer"

Vicki Nelson


COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. In March, as many college students headed home to complete their spring semester virtually, most of us assumed that the upheaval in our lives would be temporary.  As we approach the start of fall semester, we're realizing that this semester will be very different as well.

Some students will be returning this fall, but to a campus that looks very different. Other students will take their classes online, extending their virtual education even longer.

This is a time of decision for many families. Is your student comfortable returning to campus? Are they confident that they can succeed in online courses? Is the limited campus experience or the online education worth the cost? Should your student take some time off? Could they transfer to another institution?

Some students are faced with a potential emergency “pandemic transfer.”

Deciding about Transfer

Most students who are considering a transfer may be doing so for one of five primary reasons:

  • I want to live closer to home in case I get sick or need to move home quickly.
  • I need to find a public institution with lower costs because my family’s financial situation has changed.
  • My school is offering online classes only and I want to be in the classroom.
  • My school is going to be fully in the classroom and I want a school where I can take my classes online.
  • I want to live at home and commute to my classes.

Before making the decision to transfer, discuss possible alternatives with your student. Could they take a Leave of Absence for a semester or even a year and return to their school later? Could they withdraw from the school and then reapply after a semester or year away rather than starting over at a new school?

What are the Issues to Consider?

One important factor to consider before making a decision is how many credits will transfer to a new institution. Your student should be prepared to lose credits in transfer (and then be pleasantly surprised if that doesn’t happen.)

According to a 2017 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, on average, a student might lose an estimated 43% of their credits in transfer. This will of course vary by school, by the courses your student has taken, and by your student’s grades in those courses.

Some schools switched to Pass/Fail grades last spring, and these courses may not transfer. Normally, most schools do not accept credits in courses graded “Pass” only. Your student should ask whether that will be true for spring 2020 courses. Schools may make exceptions for the semester which Inside Higher Education has dubbed the “asterisk semester.”

If your student does have grades for the spring semester, but they are poor grades because of the transition to home, the difficulty of online learning, or extenuating family circumstances, they should submit a letter of explanation along with their transfer application. Most schools are attempting to take a holistic approach to admission this year.

In these uncertain and downright scary times, it's important for students and parents to be comfortable with their situation. But it's also important that your student take time to consider this decision carefully before making a move.

The Transfer Process

Once your student has made the decision to transfer, they need to navigate the actual process.

Many schools have early to mid-spring transfer deadlines, but this year most schools are being flexible in their consideration of transfer applications, so don’t assume that it's too late to apply.

The American Council on Education (ACE), along with the leadership of five higher education associations representing colleges and universities of all types throughout the country, published a statement of suggested principles for accepting college credits during this unprecedented time. It is helpful for students and parents to understand that most schools agree that this situation is unique.

Among other things, schools agree:

  • To recognize the extraordinary burden for students during this time
  • To make policies and practices as holistic as possible
  • To be as flexible as possible
  • To be as transparent as possible about policies and the rationale behind them
  • To make decisions as early as possible and to release information in a timely way
  • To make the navigation of the process as easy as possible

Before applying — or perhaps while their application is being considered — your student can take time to get to know as much as possible about the new school. Ask lots of questions. Ask about transfer credits, which deadlines are firm and which are flexible, and how long it will take to finish a degree. Don’t forget to ask about financial aid — there may be less aid because schools are struggling financially, or more aid because family circumstances have changed. Ask. Ask. Ask.

Be sure your student leaves their current school on good terms. They may decide to return later. (And if your student has a good relationship with some faculty members, asking for a letter of recommendation now is a good idea. It is always easier to write a letter while you remember the student!)

Supporting Your Student Through the Transition and Beyond

Transferring from one school to another isn’t easy, and your support can help your student succeed. Your student may feel as though they are starting all over again, but remind them that they're wiser now and already have quite a bit of useful college knowledge.

It’s important for your student to take advantage of all the help their new school offers, whether that takes the form of orientation sessions, an academic advisor, a transfer counselor or a transfer center. Don’t let your student fall into the familiarity trap of assuming they know how things work. Their new school may have very different policies and deadlines, so your student should be sure to ask lots of questions.

You and your student should both be prepared for some transfer shock. Many transfer students see a dip in their GPA (Grade Point Average) during their first semester as they work at transitioning to a new environment. This almost always rebounds, but it may be especially true this year as both college campuses and fully online classes are likely to feel strange and unfamiliar.

Finally, whether this transfer was carefully planned or hurriedly arranged, be sure to support your student’s decision. If this wasn’t what your student had planned or hoped to do, acknowledge their disappointment. As difficult as it can seem these days, try to communicate your optimism that it will go well.

We're all learning and practicing our skills of adaptability and flexibility. Remind your student that these qualities will serve them well in the future as they see what new doors this experience opens for them.

Vicki Nelson has more than thirty-five years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also has weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She began her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance, appropriate involvement, and knowing when to get out of the way.
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