Sunday, July 24, 2011

Being the parent of a transfer student

The past decade has seen a shift in how higher education thinks of parents.  Ten or so years ago parents were hardly a part of marketing, recruiting, admitting, or orienting new students.  Then came a period of begrudging acknowledgement that parents were again engaging in the lives of potential freshmen.  From this time came the phrase "helicopter parent" and the stories about parents monitoring their college students' homework, calling their faculty, and staying as connected to their kids as they were when those kids lived at home.  Now, higher education has, by and large, embraced the role of parents.  In enrollment management, for example, a school without a considered approach to recruiting parents is a school that is losing out on enrollment.

That shift, though, has paid much less attention to the parents of transfer students  (for a few examples of schools that do give some focus to transfer parents look here and here--mostly information on the dates and times of orientation). This is, in part, understandable, since the reigning assumption about transfer students is that they are more mature, older, or have not had actively involved parents, hence their college path from one school to another. But the increasing number of students entering community colleges, and the fact that now nearly one-third of college students transfer, suggests that we ought to be paying a lot more attention than we do.

I have unexpectedly become the father of a transfer student.  My oldest daughter, about whom I have written from time to time, made a slow and difficult decision to leave the private university she attended in California and enroll at Westminster.  As I reflect on my role in her decision, here are a few things I've learned about the role of parents in transfer students' lives, especially those transferring from one four-year school to another.

  • The decision about where to transfer is harder than the original decision about choosing a college.  Choosing a college as a high school senior is a decision shaped by opportunities.  Thousands of schools are possibilities, and most offer similar majors, aspirations, services, etc.  The transfer decision is much more constrained.  The courses a student has taken, the student's major, friends, habits, and debt load all constrain the decision. And that means that selecting a new institution is much more challenging.  The pieces (course offerings, transfer evaluation, financial aid, etc.) are harder to fit together. 
  • The decision to transfer is psychologically difficult.  My daughter was both quite unhappy at her previous school and quite connected to a few of the people there.  And as a student with high aspirations, the decision to transfer included a feeling that she was betraying friends, abandoning possibilities, and wasting opportunities that she would never have access to again.
  • The decision to transfer is financially risky.  The financial risk in our case was limited because I am fortunate to have a wonderful tuition benefit at Westminster.  But many schools set academic scholarships for transfer students at a lower rate than for new four year students.  And since many transfer students will not live on -campus, the cost of housing, food, and transportation are less predictable.
  • The exiting school can significantly impede a student's ability to transfer.  My daughter's university in California charges money to withdraw from courses, hides information on how to do it, and provides essentially no advising to students struggling with the decision.  So the host school both sets some of the reasons for considering transfer and does almost nothing to help in the decision.
  • Things that should be simple are incredibly hard.  Have you ever tried to send scores from your AP exams to a new school? Much harder than you would think (for example, you have to have your AP student number, the four digit identifier of your potential new school.  Then you have to make a phone call to request that AP send the scores to your potential school--you can't do it on-line.)
  • The parent's role is more complicated. Since I was involved in helping my daughter choose her original school, the advice I gave then, and my ability to give meaningful advice, are both in question.  And since my daughter is two years older and significantly wiser than she was when she originally made a choice, the things she wants and needs to hear from me are different.  Our discussions have been both harder emotionally, but also more professional and focused. And as a parent who has watched his daughter struggle, grow, and suffer, the stakes feel even higher the second time around.


Anonymous said...

Best of luck to your daughter. I hope she comes to see this experience not as a personal failure, but as a valuable chance to learn about herself. If this was a crisis, it sounds to me as though it's been managed pretty well by you. Of course, not every student in that situation has a strong support system, nor the luxury of options.
I was truck by what you said here: "(The) university in California charges money to withdraw from courses, hides information on how to do it, and provides essentially no advising to students struggling with the decision. So the host school both sets some of the reasons for considering transfer and does almost nothing to help in the decision."
My thoughts: The university, as any corporation, acts in its own interest, and it is not in its interest to lose students. Therefore, it will devote no resources to help students transfer out. It will, on the other hand, devote significant resources to help students transfer in, as well as to retain them, especially if they make noises about wanting to leave. My old institution's Dean of First Year Students sent a letter to all faculty in the spring with instructions on how to talk to students who come for advice about transferring. The letter was very specific (if student uses argument X, you should use counter-argument Y). The goal of your advising session with the student should (apparently) be to retain them, not to do what is best for the student (which could, in some cases, be to retain them). My new school, which does not struggle with ranking issues, does not send out such a letter. Students wishing to transfer are sent to one of the deans for a conversation and no effort to retain them is made for institutional reasons. All schools should strive for ethical advising, but it's so much harder to put into practice if your institution acts as a corporation.

Bryce said...

Really interesting post, Gary. A lot of what you said about how your daughter is feeling resonated with me--I remember feeling and thinking a lot of the same things when I transferred from Mars Hill after my sophomore year. While I was happy to be leaving some things behind, it was tough to close the door on some parts of my experience at the first school.

It all made me wonder how often institutions who bring in transfer students attend to these issues. From what I have seen of transfer student orientations, it is a lot of information about the new school, what it offers, how to get around, new policies, etc. I can't see too much effort being put into helping students manage the other half of the transition (e.g. the part where the student is losing and giving up certain things). While, at first glance, it seems odd for the new school to care about any of this, I wonder if there would be something gained by moving the student out of this "grieving" process, if it can be called that. Part of me thinks that, until a transfer student has grappled with questions like "what am I giving up? what am I losing? what can I take with me from one school to the next?" they can't really settle into their new institution and be fully engaged.