Transferring as a strategy in the college game

They are a diverse group: future lawyers, former flunk-outs, parents, monks, marines. Yet they all fall into one category: transfer student.

They're the ones who can't quite see themselves getting where they want to go without first going somewhere else.

Transferring might evoke the image of a young adult's spontaneous change of heart - "the social scene's a bust here"; or, "the professors just never seem to be around."

But increasingly, it's accepted as a premeditated way to save money or strengthen one's record to compete for limited slots in a top-notch college. Sometimes people are willing to make the rounds of several community colleges and state universities, in the hope they'll eventually be admitted to their dream school.

"Overall there is a larger transfer pool than ever, and colleges and universities are more open to transfers," says Howard Greene, founder of Greenes' Guides and a longtime educational planning consultant. "The parents of today's high school seniors are baby boomers who experienced similar competitive circumstances in the '70s, so they're more open to transferring as a strategic option."

Money, of course, is one of the chief motivators. With four years of tuition at elite private universities approaching the cost of a small house, a two-tiered approach to financial transfers has emerged. Low-income students are increasingly going to community colleges and then transferring to state universities to save money, while middle-class students are more often going to state universities for two years and then transferring to a higher ranked school in order to earn a degree from the latter for what amounts to a discounted price.

When Janet Joerling-Leonard was ready to get on a path to law school - after a discouraging interview and a busy family life detoured her from becoming a police officer - her first step was St. Louis Community College at Meramec.

She wanted to go to prestigious Washington University, recently ranked 15th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, but she couldn't afford four years there - nor could she devote her full time to studying while she had young children at home. But by earning high marks at SLCC for two years, she won a full scholarship to Washington U.

"We're taking things one day at a time," she says of her hopes for law school. "One thing's for sure: Starting off at a community college and then transferring was right for me."

Aside from bargain hunters, there's the late-bloomer segment: those who don't come of age personally or intellectually until late in their high school careers, in which case their grade-point averages may have suffered a hit. A successful tour of duty at a community college can help erase that record.

"Four-year universities of selective quality have found that kids who do very well in the first two years of college and now want to transfer are terrific bets," Mr. Greene says. "They fundamentally become a self-selecting pool of more mature, more motivated, more focused kids, and their track record in transferring into selective colleges for the last two years, sometimes three years, is very, very positive."

Too-early decision

Early-decision applications may also play a role in the decision to transfer. More students every year are applying for early decision, getting accepted in the fall in exchange for a promise that they will attend that school.

Schools love early decision because it helps them secure as much as 40 percent of the next freshman class quickly, and it attracts high-quality students. But the process has added another layer of pressure - if not frenzy - to an already competitive environment. Highly motivated students often feel pushed to apply for early decision, and may make that decision before they've fully contemplated their options.

Of course, there are still plenty of traditional transfers - those who discover their passion, and perhaps future profession, once they have arrived at college, but find they're at the wrong institution to pursue their newfound dream. Katie Hillary of College Park, Md., is a case in point.

A star athlete in high school, she readily admits: "When I looked at colleges to begin with, I was just looking to play soccer." The University of Tampa recruited her (though not with a scholarship offer), and she ended up enrolling there. "I knew I wanted to be a communications major, but I didn't look closely at it," Ms. Hillary says. "I just saw that they had communications, and at the time, that was good enough for me."

But after half a year of college, the outsized influence athletics had on her thinking began to recede, replaced by a greater concern about her academic future. She's interested in public relations, and Tampa doesn't have that major in its communications program, so she wants to transfer to a large university that focuses on the discipline. And she has no desire to play intercollegiate soccer at her new school.

She is looking at the University of South Carolina and North Carolina State, and plans to visit both after finals. Tampa was not a mistake, just a learning experience, she says. "I feel confident I'll end up in the right place. Now that I know what I want, I think things will fall into place."

Despite the widespread practice of transferring, it is rarely easy. Credits don't transfer, or a prerequisite at the old school doesn't quite match the follow-on course at the new one. But perhaps the biggest hurdle is on the social side.

"After their freshman year, students have generally established their group of friends," says Ann Jurecic, transfer coordinator in the Transfer Student Office at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. "If you arrive at a large university as a sophomore or junior, it can be difficult to find a way to integrate yourself into the community."

A significant percentage of transfers are usually "nontraditional" (typically older) students. Recent transfers to Stanford University in California have included a monk, a marine, a wealthy young entrepreneur, a carpenter, and an actor.

If people think it's an easy way to sneak in through the back door of a first-tier school, though, they should think again. Stanford accepts about 100 to 120 transfers each year, out of 1,200 applicants - roughly the same ratio that high school seniors face.

"We're not really looking for anything different in a transfer than in a freshman," says Joan Lippman, senior associate director of admissions at Stanford. "They still have to have very strong GPAs, do well on their SATs, and have the kind of personal traits we're looking for, but if they also have these varied life experiences, it can make them more attractive. They add some spice to Stanford."

The Starbucks solution

Duncan Atkinson-Hager's story shows how much of a difference those life experiences can make. He grew up in the college town of Davis, Calif., near Sacramento, and was accepted at San Francisco State University. College was his first time away from home, and, although his formative years were not particularly restrictive, he says the heady freedom led to a year and a half of partying.

After three semesters of less than Rhodes-scholar results (GPA of 0.4), Mr. Atkinson-Hager was politely asked to leave. A succession of odd jobs in San Francisco followed, until he took a position at the first Starbucks Coffee shop in northern California. It was 1993. For five years, he rode the chain's growth and became manager of several stores. But as he looked down the road to possible promotions, he could see his way was blocked by ... college graduates.

"That was a good period for me," he recalls. "I matured a lot. I learned skills I never learned in high school or at San Francisco State: how to manage my time, and just plain responsibility. But I realized if I didn't reconsider the school thing, the options were going to get really limited - fast."

Atkinson-Hager decided on a strategy of starting over at a community college and then transferring to a top-notch school. He was accepted at tiny Monterey Peninsula College and, newly motivated, earned straight A's.

But one day he asked a transfer counselor for a Harvard catalog, and she replied, "That's out of state, right?" Sirens went off in his head, and he knew he'd have to transfer to another community college just to position himself for the ultimate transfer to a prestigious university.

He shifted to Foothill (Community) College, located near the Stanford campus, and set his sights on the elite school. After two years of straight A's, he applied to Stanford. Even though the available slots for transfers were cut down to 30 that year, the thick envelope came in the mail one day. Atkinson-Hager was in.

The young man who flunked out of San Francisco State is now a year away from earning a bachelor's and master's degree at Stanford and is contemplating a doctorate and a teaching career. "I think its safe to say the whole transfer process worked out for me," he says with a laugh.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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