Report reveals issues faced by transfer students

Nov. 16, 2004

by John Lucas

UW-Madison is engaged in a multiyear effort to better connect transfer students to the campus in the wake of an extensive review that identified broad themes about their experiences and areas of possible improvement.

Led by Associate Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Virginia Sapiro, the Committee on the Transfer Student Experience set out to take a big-picture look at the experiences of transfer students on campus including the transfer process itself, advising, and academic and student life issues.

Among its findings: Transfer students receive the same care, attention and expectations for success as traditional students; because of their widely varying backgrounds, it is difficult to take a "one-size-fits -all approach" to transfer students; and transfer students face more academic challenges than do students who enroll at the beginning of their college careers.

"The report and the follow-up that is now occurring shows the tremendous commitment of UW-Madison to transfer students, who constitute such a high percentage of UW students," says Sapiro, who noted that the study was initiated as part of a normal review of operations.

More than 20 percent of new undergraduates started college elsewhere and roughly 80 percent of UW-Madison graduates carry transfer credit.

Policy and practice in undergraduate education is dominated by the concept of traditional students who enroll right after high school and stay until graduation, Sapiro says. However, the growing trend of student "swirl" — the circulation of undergraduates from one institution to another and back again — has been increasingly felt across the UW System.

Sapiro says her group was pleasantly surprised that the actual process of transferring to UW-Madison was remarkably smooth. However, the comments of one transfer student involved in a research focus group for the committee pointed to broad themes and areas of possible improvement.

"I missed my friends and the outdoor activities I was so involved in at my other school," the student wrote. "I knew some of the issues of getting involved here were within myself so I finally began seeking resources and getting involved — but it was tough to know where to find information or how to meet other students."

Sapiro says transfer students face issues deriving from the fact that they are, on average, a little less well-off financially, are less likely to have college-educated parents and are employed for longer hours than other students.

Many transfer students underestimate how much help and advice they need because they believe that having been in college before means they know how to operate in a new environment.

"This leads to making unnecessary mistakes in their planning and adjustment to campus life and their new academic challenges," Sapiro says. "We're planning on improving advising and orientation services for transfer students, but equally important, we have to find a way to convince them to take advantage of the services."

Transfer students often already have friends and family here, but nonetheless, they can face some social isolation when they first arrive on campus, Sapiro says. They are new students but not freshmen, they often assume "everyone else" knows each other already, and they have to make special efforts to get involved. Additional efforts in welcome and orientation programs may help bridge this gap, she adds.

An oversight committee will pursue the recommendations. To view the report and accompanying materials, visit the Committee on the Transfer Student Experience Web site.