Last Updated: Oct 19, 2020
We’d all like to believe that deciding on a school will be the end of all the stress of choosing a college. The application process is done, your acceptance letter comes, your deposit is down, and your classes are registered for. We imagine this will be nothing short of meeting our expectations, maybe even exceeding them. Imagine a little further: your first semester on campus, you love your classes, feel passionate about your major, make a ton of new and interesting friends, and participate in every aspect of the school’s community. Essentially, life is perfect! For a lot of college students, this is the case, but for the 39% of students attending their first four-year college who transfer, it’s far from their reality. Even more so, 37% of two-year college students feel the same after transferring schools, the only difference being that they know it’s coming.
Types of transfer students
There are two primary types of transfer students. The first are those who attend four-year colleges they believed to be their perfect fit. They realize within the first couple years that their college life is different than they expected. These students typically transfer after their first or second year. Specific situations can include a student wanting to move from a college with a small population to a large one (or vice versa), the college not offering a major that perfectly fits what they want to study (or they switch majors), or generally feeling out of place in the environment. Almost 39% of students who attended a four-year college ended up transferring schools in their first couple of years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse’s 2018 Transfer & Mobility report. Of these transfer students, 59% transferred to a two-year school instead of another four-year college for various reasons, such as financial stability, indecisiveness when choosing a major, or generally disliking a traditional college atmosphere.
Students who transfer from one four-year college to another aren’t necessarily concerned financially, usually enjoy the traditional college atmosphere, and know what path they want to take in their education, but the school they currently attend just isn’t living up to what was promised. The second type of transfer student (much like myself) initially attends a two-year institution with the intention of transferring to a four-year college at the end of those two years. According to the same National Student Clearinghouse report, 37% of two-year college students transfer—50% of those transfer to a four-year school. These two-year transfer students are often the students who know they want a bachelor’s degree, but they’re trying to save money by attending a less expensive community college first.
These students have the opportunity to take their generalized classes for the core curriculum required at most colleges, so when they transfer they can focus solely on their major for the last two years. These first two years give students a less pressured period of time to find out what they’re passionate about. Some colleges require students to declare a major upon acceptance at the school, even if that means changing it later. That’s a lot of weight for a new student, especially one with a lot of doubts. One of the most frustrating things for anyone is discovering you’re wasting your time on something you don’t love, but sometimes you don’t realize it until you’ve already wasted two or more semesters' worth of money.
Going off to college is stressful for anyone. For most students, it’s the first time you’re independent and in control of your lifestyle. College is daunting because the intention is to spend four years preparing for the "real world" and for “adulting” come graduation. Having that experience twice? Take daunting, kick up the anxiety levels, and that’s the plight of a transfer student. Take all the elements of moving to a new place, picking a major, and acclimating to a new environment and new teaching styles, then add the fear of being outcast from a group of people who’ve had two years to get to know each other as a community. Welcome to the transfer club!
For students coming from four-year schools, you had to come to the terrifying realization that you made a mistake. The school you thought was perfect wasn’t even close. Then you had to break the news to your parents. And now there’s the adjustment period. (If you’re a student already established at a school, reach out to transfer students—they need friendly faces more than they’d like to admit.) Two-year school transfers know going into the first year they’ll be done in two, which means they never truly get comfortable. How can someone get comfortable somewhere that’s going to be taken away so soon? It’s also harder to make concrete friendships because most students at community colleges are living full lives outside of taking classes. They’re working two jobs, raising a kid, moving into new apartments—the community aspect is built on living in the real world while garnering a solid education.
Four-year college students tend to live in a bubble, almost separate from the real world. Stepping into that bubble as a transfer student from a community college is like stepping into another universe. A place where you hang out in each other’s dorms 24/7, walk to class instead of drive, and eat meals with the entire population of the school—this lifestyle change can be jarring, even more so when a college doesn’t accept a large population of transfer students.
Why transferring is difficult
There can be a lack of proper attention and guidance from institutions to their transfer students. When I transferred, I struggled with admission officers continually trying to process all my paperwork as a freshman and the new student orientation definitively being freshman oriented. Colleges that accept transfers students are in a unique position to mend a student’s jaded perception of what college is really like. Sometimes it can feel like transfers get shunted in favor of freshmen because colleges want to ensure the students they already have don’t transfer out. This isn’t to say all colleges are like this, and not all transfer students are going to have a hard time fitting in at a new school, but nothing is easy about being unsure about your path in life. Transfers just need a little more TLC than a student who comfortably fits in at their school of choice.
Transfer students are in a special position to have a worldlier perspective on learning and their environments. They learn to be comfortable with being uprooted. They learn to adapt better, so being shoved into the real world after those last two years is a little less daunting. From personal experience, I found my professors at my two-year school had a vibrancy about them that was sometimes lacking in my four-year professors. They felt more genuine and more human. They were more attainable, and I carried that mentality and impact with me to my next school. Transfer students learn to put in the extra effort to connect with new professors. They also learn how to interact with people from all walks of life because integrating into two different environments requires just that. In a way, transfer students are the chameleons of higher education.
Transfer students go through a lot of transitions in a short span of time, but those 37%–39% of students who transfer do so willingly, knowing it will make them happier in the long run. Four years may not seem like a long time in your life, but it’s an impactful four years that shouldn’t feel like a burden. It should feel like a gift. Deciding to attend college at all means being determined to make the most of your education and internalize as much wisdom as possible before advancing into a sometimes-unforgiving adulthood. If you’re a college student struggling with feelings of wanting to transfer but are worried about making the wrong decision: take a breath. If you’re having severe doubts about the school you’re currently attending, that is usually reason enough to leave.
For more advice on transferring and getting the process started, check out our Transfer Students section.