College Game Plan

How to decide if you should transfer to another college

Key Points
  • Around a quarter of four-year college students transfer at some point.
  • Often they leave for important — and sometimes necessary — reasons.
  • It's always worth considering the potential personal and financial downsides of leaving one school for another.
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc | Getty Images

Should you stay or should you go?

As college admission decisions roll in, many students will think about remaining at their current school or transferring.

Around 25 percent of students who start at a four-year public or private institution transfer at some point, according to the Department of Education.

Students decide to leave their school for a variety of reasons: Their current institution doesn't offer the major they want; they're unhappy with their social life; or, their family's financial circumstances have changed.

But the possible upsides can be offset by a number of challenges transfer students face. (Community college students, of course, have to transfer if they want to pursue a bachelor's degree).

Here are some considerations you should factor into your decision.

There might be some academic adjustment 

Hero Images | Getty Images

Try to make sure your course work at your current school isn't erased by the new school.

"You want to make sure you do your research with the schools you're interested in transferring to to see how the courses will apply to your degree," said Maria Campanella, director of student services at Stony Brook University.

Find out from any school you might transfer to not just how many credits it will accept, Campanella said, but how many of those courses will be applied toward your degree.

The institution can change, but the person can't change. 
Alexander McCormick
Indiana University

"Transferring schools is similar to changing majors, you may lose some credit, and so you really want to think about how much time you have left to go and if it would really benefit you to transfer," Campanella said.

Indeed, 39 percent of transfer students receive no credit for the classes they've taken at their old school, and the average transfer student loses 27 earned credits, according to a 2014 federal study.

That explains why transfer students take about three extra months to graduate than their nontransfer counterparts.

And brace yourself for "transfer shock," a temporary dip in grades that students tend to experience during the adjustment period at another school.

Your social life will need to be re-created 

The Washington Post | Getty Images

Many college students make their friends freshmen year, so transfer students who enter a school sophomore or junior year can find it more challenging to connect with people, said Janice McCabe, author of "Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success."

"Right after they're transferring, they're coming in and meeting other upperclassmen students who may not always be as open immediately to making friends," McCabe said, although that problem is far from immutable.

"Transfer students just have to be a little more patient and put themselves out there a little bit more," McCabe said.

And expect additional expenses (and financial offers) 

Since transfers take longer to graduate, that can mean more tuition costs, students loans — and a delay in salary, said Allen Grove, college admissions expert for ThoughtCo.Com and a professor at Alfred University.

The average tuition at a four-year public college was $9,970 in the 2017-2018 academic year, and $34,740 at a private college, according to the College Board.

"If you would have been earning $30,000 a year, and suddenly you're in school for those four months, that's $10,000 you're not earning," Grove said.

Also, keep in mind any financial aid package you might have is guaranteed for only four years. "In that fifth year, whatever financial aid package you got often evaporates on you," Grove said.

He added that many of the resume builders that students pick up in college — like research assistant roles and internships — are a product of their relationships with faculty. "When you transfer, the bottom drops from under you and you have less time to get to know the faculty well," he said.

The calculus of your decision will change if the school you'd transfer to offers lower tuition or a more generous financial aid package than your current one. Also, some schools grant scholarships just for transfer students.

Inject some introspection into your decisionmaking, said Alexander McCormick, an associate professor of education at Indiana University and director of the National Survey of Student Engagement.

"The institution can change, but the person can't change," McCormick said. "It calls upon students to think hard about whether changing institutions is really going to solve the problem."

More from College Game Plan:
10 best value colleges
Your kid doesn't really care how much college costs
Student loan problems could hold back economic growth, Fed chief says