By Catherine McDonald Davenport, Interim Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions at Dickinson College
Whew! The college search is in the rearview mirror and your son or daughter is immersed in their first semester of college. Success!
Then the texts messages start. “I didn’t do well on midterms.” “I don’t really have anyone to hang out with.”
“I don’t think I like it here.”
I can relate — both as a parent and a college admissions officer. I was in the parking lot of a high school in Ohio one mid-October preparing for a school visit when my oldest son, a first-year college student, texted: “I think I chose the wrong college.”
Definitely not a topic for a text conversation. I replied with a few questions and suggested a time for us to talk by phone that evening. Fortunately, my years in higher education helped me to reassure him but not react and try to “fix it.” I didn’t even know what “it” might be, and giving each of us a few hours to think and reflect allowed us to have a calm and thoughtful conversation.
When we spoke, I explained that it was the middle of the term and the workload was heavy with papers and exams, and that would be the case regardless of where he attended college. So, while transferring may have seemed like an appealing and even sensible option, what he needed to do before embarking on a step like that was answer the core question: What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?
Based on my own experience, as well as insights gleaned from interviews with students contemplating transferring, here’s a list of action items to talk over and work on with your student if they’re investigating the possibility of transferring.
1. Give it time
It’s too early to make the decision about “fit” partway through one term. There’s so much to get accustomed to, and it can take time to develop a sense of belonging. The first term of college is tough for many students, but there are steps students can take before they consider transferring that might help prevent an unnecessary move.
First, resident advisors (RAs), professors, career counselors, health and wellness staff, campus life staff and others are there to help students adjust to and navigate their college experience. If students are unhappy about aspects of their college life, they should reach out to the people who are there to help. If the student is facing financial issues, the university may be willing to provide additional assistance to enable the student to stay. If there’s a personal situation, such as an illness in the family, the college might allow a leave of absence. If a student is still unhappy after a full semester or a quarter or two (but preferably a full year), it’s time to think about transfer or taking time off. At this point, students have much more experience and data points to rely on than when they first arrived at college.
2. Be deliberate to find the right fit
If your student wants to leave because of a poor fit, it’s important to understand what that means and to develop criteria for assessing a new institution based on that understanding.
They can make a checklist of things they aren’t satisfied with at their current school along with what they want from a new school. Is it the composition of the student body? The physical location (too urban or too rural, too far or too close to home)? The lack of a specific academic program? Too many or too few fraternities and sororities? Too much or too little emphasis on sports? Not enough to do on campus? Too little diversity of race, culture or ideas? Then they can start researching schools that meet their criteria.
3. Consider “stepping out” for a semester
Rushing through the process can lead to more problems and challenges. Is your son or daughter really ready to be in college, or would taking a semester off make better sense than finding a new school in a very short window of time? “Stepping out” for a semester allows the student some time to think and reflect on the items from #2 above. I have actually had students take a leave of absence for a semester and return renewed, energized and focused on why they chose to be at Dickinson in the first place. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, for older parents like me) is real with this generation, and sometimes stepping away helps students see the big picture and clear their heads.
4. Do thorough research
If transferring to a new school is the result of deliberate thinking, then your student should reach out to academic advisors, professors and others at the colleges under consideration. Make sure the new school has the desired major (especially if the lack of it at the current college is the reason for transferring!). Some institutions may require that all courses in the major be completed there, which could mean taking (and paying for) a course or courses similar to what the student has already taken. Students should request a credit evaluation, which will indicate what credits, if any, can be applied at the new school.
5. Plan ahead
Potential transfer students should be aware of the time frame in which a decision will be made on their application so they can plan ahead as they wrap up the term or year at their current institution. Some institutions reserve spots for transfer students each year, but others may not make decisions on transfer students until after they see the results of their incoming first-year class, which might not be until after May 1.
Students also should apply to several colleges and have a Plan B. I’ve seen a student accepted as a freshman and then denied admission to the same institution as a transfer student later on, as the composition of those two applicant pools can be very different.
6. Look at the impact on financial aid and scholarships
When thinking about whether to transfer, remember that scholarships don’t travel with the student. Those with substantial aid packages should think seriously about their priorities and options at the new institutions being considered. Once students start comparing transfer options, they should research their financial aid policies carefully. Many forms of aid are already distributed by the time transfer students are accepted. The destination school may be less expensive, but not if there’s no financial aid to be had.
Housing is a related consideration. Students might be accepted to their top choice transfer school but then have to arrange their own off-campus housing, which may be more costly and may create some new challenges with finding friend groups.
7. Be ready to self-advocate
Once students have transferred, they should be prepared to advocate for themselves to a greater extent than they did at their original school. The same resources and support networks they had previously may not be available to transfer students at the new institution.
Friend groups start to form early in the first year. The transferring student needs to be proactive in creating opportunities to meet people by joining clubs and attending events at the new school. Students should find out what the school offers transfer students and decide if a program to guide transfer students at the new school is important to them.
So how did the phone call go with my oldest son? He stayed put and is now a senior in college who will graduate on time in four years in May. And he might even pursue college admissions as his career path!
Catherine McDonald Davenport is Interim Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions at Dickinson College. She strategically leads an admissions staff that supports the academic mission of the college by enrolling a diverse and accomplished student body and promoting Dickinson’s national and international visibility. As a leader in her field, Davenport is a sought-after source by media, including The Huffington Post, Inside Higher Ed and NPR member station WITF. She has presented at the National Association for College Admission Counseling and served as professional development chair of the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling. Davenport graduated from Dickinson with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and minors in religion and political science. She earned her master’s degree in education from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also holds a secondary school counseling certification from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.