My College:
Student Life

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

David Tuttle


If you've ever bought a car, you had to make multiple decisions: price, horsepower, color, accessories, fuel economy, etc. The process probably ended with you going with what felt like the best and most reasonable choice. Or maybe the opposite: you fell in love with a vehicle for reasons you can't quite explain. And usually it works out.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t. Why did I go with boring old blue? Did I really need a convertible in Minnesota? Why did I listen to my head and not my heart?

This happens with college choices too. Students and families make decisions based on available majors, price, best grant and scholarship offers, location, the gym, closet size, and even the weather on the day of the campus visit.

But, as with a new car, you can sometimes have buyer’s remorse. When students expect the best years of their lives — but then experience a crummy rooming situation, poor advising, academic struggles, and more — it's not unusual to think about transferring. And spring semester is often the time when first- and second-year students consider going elsewhere.

As parents and family members, it's important to help your student consider short- and long-term consequences when exploring the topic of transferring. Here are some things to think about:

1. It’s not uncommon to consider transferring.

It makes sense that students want the optimal experience. Images of their friends on Instagram and TikTok living their best lives at college can be deceptive. And when others are seemingly fitting right in, excelling, and happy, it's natural to want the same thing.

But people go at their own pace. Settling in takes time. I have seen many students wait it out and find themselves completely and positively immersed in their first college choice after making the adjustment.

2. It might not be an issue with the school.

It might be your student. So, take time to assess their life journey. How can the past inform the present and future? Consider a few things:

  • Back in high school, did it take them awhile to warm up to the whole scene, including classes, activities, and social life? Do they typically start slow, then warm up and excel?
  • Do anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues contribute to longer adjustment periods?
  • How does your student typically respond when facing difficult circumstances? How resilient are they?
  • Is your student an introvert? This can be a big issue when they start college and see seemingly everyone else making friends, having fun, and living the dream. Not only is it isolating, but it leads students to wonder what is wrong with them. This is where residential life and student activity staffs can be really helpful in directing students to opportunities, making connections, and normalizing that being an introvert isn’t a flaw, but a style. If the student transfers elsewhere, they will still be introverted.

3. What is the core source of discontent?

Not all reasons for wanderlust are created equal. I dealt with many students who were excellent fits with the institution, but decided they wanted to go into a nursing program — which we didn’t offer. The commodity you are paying for is the major and the academic experience. If that isn’t there, then the decision is not that difficult.

Next, sadly, is often cost. Changes in family economic situations, having to work so much that academics are compromised, and just stress on the family, are serious issues. Related is the topic of value. That is, if a student is consistently getting a 2.0 GPA — would a less costly choice make sense?

4. What are the student’s visceral concerns?

Are they miserable? Happiness is really important! It's the same for parents who change jobs to get away from dysfunctional work places.

So maybe the school has a good reputation, but the culture is cutthroat, or the social life is lacking, or the reality of the all-around experience on this particular campus doesn't line up with what your student felt during the college search and decision-making process.

Sometimes students miss their high school cohort, especially if many went to the same institution. Watching your buddies have lots of fun on social media while you struggle can naturally lead to the fear of missing out.

In these cases, it's important to really explore what the student is seeking from their experience. Prioritizing academics, creating new cohorts, and getting engaged in campus life at the current institution may be better than reliving high school. And there are lots of students out there struggling with the same issues. Connecting with them can be a challenge and one way to do that is to take the initiative. Is your student built that way?

If the student isn’t at their first-choice school, it's easier to be critical and to want to bail out. I suspect there is something psychological about this. They wanted a new car and got a used one. That mindset may not go away.

5. Learning is a developmental experience and doesn't always create happy customers.

Schools help students learn, become high-functioning adults, and prepare for life after college. The campus should be a safe and healthy place. Classes should be challenging and of high quality. The institution should treat its students well.

But here’s the thing. Students will learn a lot from the challenges they face and overcome. And these challenges occur on ALL campuses. So a change may not really help. You are paying, in some respects, for hard life lessons. Students will have uneven instruction, will not get all the classes they want (and when they want them), they may get in trouble, they may not get playing time or the lead role in the theater production, could lose an election, maybe miss out on an award, live near a bunch of obnoxious party animals, and have their hearts broken.

This is life. Coaching students and contextualizing their journeys, their resilience, and their growth is a really important role you can play.

6. Does the current institution get a home field advantage?

I am biased, but I definitely lean this way. The proverbial grass is always greener.

So, for the student looking at transferring, what has changed? Is the institution generally what it presented itself to be? Are the negative issues out of the control of the school? A challenging roommate situation, a poor instructor, an alcohol-obsessed student body — these are things that schools may not control completely, though how schools address these concerns can be telling.

You may know your student’s tolerance threshold best. If they can focus on what is right about their school, show patience, and learn to adapt, then they may be quite happy in the long run. And they spare themselves starting over elsewhere.

One of my own kids was ready to transfer after just a few weeks into the first term. There were many lamentations about social life, and a break-up didn’t help matters. Those are difficult conversations, and it's hard to ask your child to stick it out. Listen and empathize. If the discontent goes well into the spring or into the second year, then there is probably something there.

As a general rule, help your student determine what will change if they stay, and what will be different if they leave. Getting to the true core issues, weighing the importance of these issues, developing options, strategizing about how to move forward, and making realistic plans are all part of the process.

Keep perspective and help them develop that as well. Their car is probably just fine. But if it is a lemon, a change may be in order.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected]
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