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When first choice isn’t the best one

By Brian Ralph, PhD, Former Vice President for Enrollment Management
Special to the Charlotte Observer
Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012

If you're like some families with college-aged students, you may be getting a surprise this Thanksgiving.

Perhaps it will go something like this: you'll finish the turkey and Uncle Joe will ask your daughter Sally about her first year at college. You, of course, will be bursting with pride. After what seemed like a lifetime's worth of college prep tests, research, campus visits and essay revisions, Sally is happily attending the university of her dreams.

"Um, it's OK. I mean, it's fun and all but..." What? Over the course of the break you may learn things aren't going as well as anybody thought. Sally wants to leave her school.

If this happens to you, take a deep breath. And relax - you have company. A 2012 study by the National Student Clearinghouse and Indiana University shows that nearly one third of all college students transfer at least once before earning their degrees. And transferring isn't just for freshmen: 22 percent transfer in their fourth or fifth years. What once was considered "flighty" has become mainstream.

It comes down to fit. Student success is highly correlated to the level of satisfaction and engagement in the college experience. Finding the right fit is the key to happiness in every area of college life: academic, social, physical, psychological and spiritual.

The reasons behind student transfers are as varied as the students themselves, but the biggest drivers are the size and/or location of the campus, the social scene, the academic program (availability of desired major and level of rigor) and the distance from home. Your first job as a parent is to determine the core of the problem.

Of course, most students need some help adjusting to college life. At Queens, a program called "Transition to University" helps freshmen deal with the realities of increased academic expectations, making new friends and being away from home. Universities offer this type of programming because the issues are real. But they can be overcome.

In fact, transition issues can present an opportunity for your student to develop perseverance and problem solving skills. Before you seriously consider a move, help her tap into resources like faculty advisors, residence assistants and the counseling center. She shouldn't give up easily.

After all that, if it turns out the fit just isn't right, so be it. Universities are well equipped to help your student (and you) navigate this unexpected turn in the road. In fact, most admissions offices have counselors dedicated to transfer students, and it's not unusual for transfers to make up more than 10 percent of the new faces on campuses each year.

You don't need to start from scratch. Give some renewed attention to the schools that were second, third and even fourth on her list. Do they make more sense now, given what she's determined is important to her?

The good news is your student will be savvier this time around. She should have a well-developed set of questions and criteria, because now she knows more about what she really likes, wants and needs, as well as what she doesn't.

Go back for some visits, or at least make some calls to learn about the steps your student needs to take to transfer. Today's students transfer in the spring (yes, thousands of students switch colleges each January; it's a great time to get a fresh start), summer and fall.

Here is the most important point: we all want students to be successful. Transferring to another school for the right reasons puts thousands of students each year on a better path to success. Institutional fit is critically important, and sometimes that means taking a new road.

As Robert Frost (who was a transfer student) so beautifully stated, "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Brian Ralph, PhD, is formerly the Vice President for Enrollment Management at Queens University of Charlotte.

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