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Lori Riley, Northeastern State University

Lori Riley.jpgWhile there are still many ongoing challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, higher education institutions are looking forward to a fresh academic year and returning to a sense of normalcy. Providing support to students during the pandemic was an incredibly intensive collaborative effort between administrators, departments, faculty, and staff. As physical college and university campuses across the United States closed during the spring of 2020, students quickly lost the traditional modes of access to campus support services. This abrupt change was difficult for many students, including those already acclimated to their institution, but a particularly vulnerable population during this time was transfer students. 

Transfer Student Barriers

Transfer students face many challenges and barriers that traditional students do not. From deconstructing hard to understand articulation agreements and accumulating excess credits, to navigating diverse and often outdated institutional websites, transfer students often lack the support and information they need to succeed. The more transfer student capital a student has, or knowledge of the nuanced policies and procedures gained throughout the transfer process, the more likely they will succeed (Laanan et. al, 2007). Inside Higher Ed recently launched a blog series called “Tackling Transfer” which is a national project that focuses on addressing “issues facing transfers and how institutions can improve transfer student success.” An abysmal fourteen percent of community college students who transfer to a four-year university will complete a bachelor’s degree (Kadlec, 2021). 

There are additional complexities that transfer students face beyond policy though, and these complexities were exacerbated by the pandemic. Both first-year and transfer students faced the disadvantage of not being able to experience their new campuses in person during the height of COVID, but all new freshmen had at least one thing in common that will remain even after the pandemic: they are part of a cohort of other new-to-college students. Many institutions support freshmen with a first-year experience program that is meant to give them a foundation for the college experience and integrate them into the college and campus community; however, these integrative supportive programs are often not extended to transfer students (Holaday, 2005). The lack of support for transfer students can have a negative impact on their success. Many college support services and resources were restricted amid the pandemic, but the true impact of “transfer shock” may now just start to become known. 

Transition Theory

Nancy K. Schlossberg’s Transition Theory (1984) can provide a framework for advisors to use to support transfer students. All types of college students, whether traditional, non-traditional, transfer, or otherwise, experience transition at some point throughout the collegiate journey. “In broad terms, a transition is any event or nonevent that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles” (Anderson et. al, 2012, p. 39). Transitions can be anticipated, unanticipated, or nonevents, and the perspective, context, and impact that the transition has on an individual are important points to consider (Anderson et. al, 2012). 

For students planning on transferring from a two-year college to a four-year college, the transition and impending changes may be anticipated: starting a new college, having new professors, navigating a new system and a new campus. Sometimes the transfer experience may be unanticipated, though, like if a student was academically suspended from an institution and must transfer to another college to continue their studies and get back in good standing, or if the pandemic prevented a new transfer student from attending class in person on their new college’s campus.

Anderson et. al (2012) explain that not all transitions are negative, but “people in the midst of one transition experience other transitions, which makes coping especially difficult” (p. 48). While the transfer experience may be a nonevent for some students, COVID still added many unanticipated transitions in the last year, both personally and academically. Transfer students already have to contend with the transition of a new college and learning the differences in the new college’s environment, expectations, and terminology (Grites, 2004; Stuart Hunter & Kendall, 2012). The stress of COVID has left 81% of college students feeling anxious (Johnson Hess, 2020). Going through job loss, dealing with personal illness or the illness of family members, balancing college learning in a virtual world while children are home distance-learning simultaneously, struggling with technological access and zoom fatigue, adding the financial pressure of incurred fees for online or virtual classes, the list of transitions that COVID added goes on and on. 

Supporting Transfer Students

Advisors are at the forefront of interacting with students; an advisor is often the first person a student will go to for a variety of issues, which makes them a crucial piece in supporting transfer students. How successfully a person copes with transition depends on the resources they have available to them, and those who help people cope with transitions “need to be able to weave together their skills and knowledge” (Anderson et. al, 2012, p. 37). Advisors need to be skilled experts in a variety of ways in order to foster the relationships needed to support transfer students. The Relational component of NACADA’s Core Competencies Model highlights rapport building, inclusive and respectful communication, and facilitating problem solving as important factors that enable advisors to foster student success. 

Communicating effectively and communicating often with transfer students are the most important ways to support them and build rapport with them. Through proactive advising, advisors can make deliberate outreach to transfer students to have a more personal and direct involvement with the student before they ask for help (Varney, 2013). Not being part of a specific cohort with a first-year experience like freshman have, transfer students can feel less connected to their institution, but an advisor’s deliberate outreach with a transfer student can make them feel valued and cared for. Advisors can create a communication schedule specifically for transfer student outreach that uses several modes of communication (email, phone calls, text messages, virtual meetings, learning management systems) to meet them where they are. The wonderful benefit of using technology in advising is it “can allow advisors and students to interact far more often than the all-too-common twice a semester scenario” (Pellegrin, 2015). Many advisors had to change how they communicated with students during COVID. While the ideal communication with a transfer student would be a one-on-one interaction in person every time, that isn’t feasible for today’s students, and the innovative ways advisors found to connect with them during COVID should be carried on in the post-pandemic world. 

Understanding the barriers that transfer students face and the various transitions they cope with is necessary in order to know how to best support them. With the ever-changing needs of today’s diverse college students, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Transfer students are more likely to lack connection and community at their new campus. Effective advisor outreach and relationship building through deliberate and targeted communication by any means is one of the greatest ways to support transfer students and foster engagement in a post-pandemic world.

Lori Riley
Director of Assessment
College of Education
Northeastern State University


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Varney, J. (2013). Proactive advising. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 137–154). Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Riley, L. (2021, September). Lost in translation: Supporting transfer students in a post-pandemic world. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). [insert url here] 


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.