Academic Advising Resources



Transfer Shock: Why is a Term Forty Years Old Still Relevant?
Authored By: Karen Thurmond

Transfer shock refers to the tendency of students transferring from one institution of higher education to another to experience a temporary dip in grade point average during the first or second semester at the new institution as defined by Hills (1965). A subsequent recovery in grade point average is also common. Researchers since Hills (1965) tend to agree that transfer shock does exist in some form, although there is not unanimous agreement concerning the severity or manifestation of the phenomenon. Some researchers have proposed reasons for transfer shock and suggested possible solutions. Given the number of studies that have been done, why is the term 'transfer shock' still relevant after forty years?
Transfer Shock 1965-2005
In 1965, Hills used the term 'transfer shock' to summarize the phenomenon of decreased grade point average after transfer. But even before Hills coined the phrase, researchers inWashingtonStatewere observing and documenting what Hills would later name. 'Martorana and Williams compared a group of transfers and a group of native student at the State College of Washington. They were equated on a number of factors, such as sex, major-subject area, high school attended, and year in college...They found that the transfers have a problem of adjustment which actually affects their academic effectiveness during the semester just after transfer. As this adjustment is made, the differences between mean grade-point averages of the transfer and non-transfer groups become negligible' (Bird, 1956, p. 83-84).
Hills' work was based on a summary of literature and research like that of Martorana and Williams dating from 1928 to 1964 in which the drop in grade point average after transfer was consistently reported. Hills' conclusion was that students planning to earn a baccalaureate degree must be warned that they will experience transfer shock and probably take longer to graduate than the student who begins the undergraduate career at the four year school. Hills called for guidance counselors in high schools to pass this information along to college hopefuls.

In the decades following these studies transfer of credit increased considerably. Specifically, in the 1980s community college attendance increased dramatically and, as a result, the number of students transferring to four year institutions also increased. Studies from the 1970's and 1980's documented that transfer students generally earned grades.20 to.30 points lower than their GPA's before transfer (Gold, 1971; Nolan & Hall, 1978; Webb, 1971). Students who began at a community college and subsequently transferred exhibited a correlation between grades at the community college and their subsequent grades at four year schools (Fernandez, et al, 1985). It has been noted that transfer students' grades tend to regain the level of native students after the first semester (Nolan & Hall, 1978).

Demographic factors mediate the experience of transfer shock. In a study that included both students who transferred from community colleges and other four year colleges, female transfer students earned higher grades than female native students, while male native students earned higher grades than male transfer students. African American transfer students earned slightly higher grades than African American native students (Durio, Helmick, & Slover, 1982). Keeley & House (1993) reported that both sophomore and junior transfer women brought better transfer GPAs than did men, and women generally outperformed men at both levels. Age seemed to be a very important factor in transfer success and avoidance of transfer shock. Those students age 25 and older experienced very little transfer shock regardless of the point at which they transferred. Also, students transferring under age 21 surpassed the GPA achievements of the group aged 21-24. Moumouris (1997) found that the older the transfer student the longer it takes to graduate, yet the overall results showed that the older the transfer student the better the final cumulative GPA at time of graduation.
Research has indicated that students who transfer from the community college to the four year school as juniors earn higher grades, have higher graduation rates, and have lower academic dismissal rates than students who transfer as freshmen or sophomore (House, 1989). Keeley and House (1993) found that sophomores transferring from the community college experience transfer shock and recovery in their first two semesters at the four year institution, but didn't improve GPA much after their second semester. Students who transferred as juniors showed marked improvement in each of the three semesters following transfer. Earning the associates' degree seemed to be a positive factor in academic performance. Those who transferred as a sophomore also didn't graduate in the same proportions as junior transfers.

Some work has been done to determine transfer shock differences according to academic advisors and college. Bird (1956) cites Iowa State University studies which reveals that there are 'wide differences in the mean grade-point ratio attained by the transfer from different junior colleges. The average made by the transfers form on junior college, for example, will be significantly higher than the university's mean, and the average for another, significantly lower. Similar differences are noted in California, Colorado, Michigan, Texas, Washington, and other states which make periodic studies' (Bird, 1956. p. 84). Keeley and House (1993) found that business majors brought in the highest GPAs, but showed a dramatic transfer shock effect, dropping from 3.272 transfer GPA to a 2.680 first term GPA. A recent study updates the details of transfer shock by indicating that math and science majors specifically experience statistically significant decline in the GPA. Students in both the fine arts and humanities and social sciences disciplines experienced GPA increases, yet neither increase was statistically significant (Cejda et al., p. 8-9).

Bird (1956) makes four general conclusions in the legacy study. 

  • Junior college transfers make similar grades after a slight first term loss.
  • Junior college transfers make similar grades at the four year institution to those they made at the two year institution.
  • Junior colleges accomplish the goal of salvaging students for advanced study.
  • Though findings are not uniform at all senior institutions, junior college preparation is so satisfactory that doubts about quality (at the junior college) no longer exist (p. 85).

It appears that a half a century of experience and research has not changed these general conclusions. Dawson & Dell (1997) recognized that through transfer shock occurs almost universally in transfer, it is not usually severe. They theorized that transfer guides and pre-transfer programs might keep students from experiencing transfer shock, or at least provide them with the direction they need to weather the storm of the first semester of transfer.

Transfer Shock and Advising Interventions
Glass & Harrington (2002) believe that four year institutions should continue to seek effective ways of reaching out to these students, perhaps through counseling, tutoring, and mentoring in an effort to help them adjust more effectively to the academic and social life of the school. These students will benefit from greater attention to the transfer transition experience on the part of the college or university. Townsend (1995) indicates that classroom environments will also impact transfer student success, particularly for students coming from community colleges and small colleges and universities. Students transferring from two-year environments report that the classroom environment feels less supportive and less interactive, therefore hindering academic success.
Thurmond (2003) notes that some students make 'unplanned transfers.' Reasons for such a transfer include forced relocation by reason of employment for student or family member, academic failure at a first choice institution, failed relationships, or other circumstances, including some over which the student has little control. Students making unplanned transfer to a college or university require individual attention and guidance through academic advising. These students may not benefit from group orientation events or welcome events. They may not access resources without intervention from the academic advisor. F.S. Laanan (Laanan, 2001) concluded that students who consult with academic counselors on a regular basis are statistically different in their perceptions of the two-year environment. Laanan also reports that in order to be successful in their academic adjustment at the four year institution, students must begin seeking assistance from the academic advisor while in the two-year environment. He states that this involvement provides students with opportunities to ask questions about admissions, academics, and social and academic expectations.
Early intervention may also be a key to increasing the awareness of the student prior to transfer. Programs that invite students to become engaged with the new institution and with the academic advisor prior to application or enrollment are in place at The University of Memphis and other institutions. Data and results of these initiatives may reveal the value of advising intervention to the transfer student.

Transfer shock continues to puzzle students, advisors, and retention specialists. Academic advising provides a forum for the transfer student to receive individual attention and guidance for the crucial first semester. Academic advisors should make early intervention in light of an awareness of the problems and solutions outlined in this paper. This strategy will provide transfer students with their best chance of minimizing transfer shock.

Coordinator for Academic Transition

The University of Memphis



Bird, G. (1954). Preparation for advanced study. In Henry, N. B. (ed.) The public junior college (pp. 77-93).Chicago,Illinois: National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE).


Cejda, Brent D., Alice J. Kaylor, and Kirsten L. Rewey. 'Transfer Shock in an Academic Discipline: The Relationship between Students' Majors and their Academic Performance.'  Community College Review, 26(3) (Winter 1998): 1-14.


Dawson, E., & Dell, C. (1997). Meeting the needs of rural students through distance advising: The role of transfer guides in three measurements of student success. NACADA Journal, 17 (1), 49-54.


Durio, H. F., Helmick, C. K., & Slover, J. T. (1982). A comparison of aptitude and achievement between transfer engineering students and students entering engineering as freshmen at a major university. Educational Research Quarterly, 7, 42-50.


Fernandez, T. V. (). Academic performance of community college transferees. Resources in Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 252 268)


Glass, J. C., & Harrington, A. R. (2002). Academic performance of community college transfer student and 'native' students at a large state university. Journal of Research and Practice, 26, 415-430.


Gold, B. K. (1971). Academic performance of L.A.C.C. transfers to UCLA through the special services program, 1971-1972. Resources in Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 067 089)


Hills, J. (1965) Transfer shock: The academic performance of the transfer student. The Journal of Experimental Education, 33(3), (Spring, 1965). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 010 740).


House, J. D. (1989). The effect of time of transfer on academic performance of community college transfer students. Journal of College Student Development, 30, 144-147.


Keeley, E., & House, J. D. (1993, May). Transfer shock revisited: A longitudinal study of transfer academic performance. Paper presented at the Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, Chicago.


Laanan, F. S. (2001). Transfer student adjustment. New Directions for Community Colleges, 114, 5-14.


Martorana, S.V. & Williams, L. (1954). Academic success of junior college transfers at the State College of Washington. Junior College Journal : 24(March, 1954), 402-15.


Moumouris, T. T. (1997). Successful community college transfer student: Academic performance, enrollment behavior and baccalaureate degree. Dissertation Abstracts. (UMI No. 9810965)


Nolan, E. J., & Hall, D. L. (1978). Academic performance of the community college transfer student: A five year follow up study. Journal of College Student Personnel, 19, 543-548.


Thurmond, K. (2003). Four Year to Four Year Transfer in Grites, T., Kerr, T., and King, M., (eds). Advising Transfer Students . (pages?)Manhattan, KS.: National Academic Advising Association.


Townsend, B. K. (1995). Community college transfer students: A case study of survival. Review of Higher Education, 18 (2), 175.


Webb, S. C. (1971). Estimated effects of four factors on academic performance before and after transfer. Journal of Experimental Education, 39, 78-84.

Cite this using APA style as:

Thurmond, K.C. (2007). Transfer Shock: Why is a Term Forty Years Old Still Relevant?Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources

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