After working for 16 years in the restaurant industry, Kia Thompson decided she wanted to go back to school. She transferred to the University of Minnesota at age 35 from Minneapolis Community and Technical College to pursue a degree in psychology.
Though she was nervous about connecting with younger students, she said she felt welcomed by joining a transfer student group and staying engaged with events the University offers for transfers.
Unlike Thompson, many transfer students' experiences are less positive, with only about half of transfers surveyed saying they feel a sense of belonging at the University, according to the 2018 Students Experience in the Research University survey.
The University ranks near the top of the Big Ten in percentage of transfer students, but it is also seeing a decline in transfer applications in recent years, reflecting a national trend and prompting discussion among University officials about how best to respond.
Since a peak in transfer student applications in 2011, the number of transfer applications has declined overall by more than 22 percent while the number of transfers enrolled has remained largely stagnant. Transfer students were offered admission and enrolled at higher rates in 2018 than in more than a decade.
Addressing the changing transfer landscape
Nearly 40 percent of transfers to the University originate from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the vast majority of students from two-year schools in the system. As the economy improves, fewer students choose to go to these colleges, shrinking the pool of students that may transfer to the University, said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of the Office of Undergraduate Education.
“The four-year institutions in Minnesota State are now trying to retain more of their two-year students,” McMaster said. “They would rather have their students stay within the Minnesota State system than transfer to the University of Minnesota.”
Minnesota State is harmonizing programs between its two- and four-year institutions to make the transfer process smoother for its students and make its own schools more attractive.
One solution to declining transfer admissions could be admitting fewer transfer students and more freshmen, keeping transfer admission competitive and maintaining enrollment levels.
Regent Michael Hsu said he supports admitting more freshmen students and relying less on transfer students to fill enrollment.
“If in fact that decision was made ... we would have to do a fair amount of homework to figure out: can we adequately serve those [additional freshman] students?” McMaster said.
Changing the current balance puts more stress on housing, advising, access to high-demand classes and the amount of financial aid available for freshmen.
Financial aid programs, like the University of Minnesota Promise Scholarship (U Promise) for Minnesota residents, cover two years of school for transfers even though most transfers need more time to complete their education, McMaster said.
After having a bad experience at a Missouri private school where she received a full ride, Samantha Boring said financial aid was a huge consideration when coming to the University of Minnesota. She said she thinks the University needs to do more to provide financial aid specifically for transfer students.
Currently, the University does not have the resources to extend U Promise for transfer students past two years, McMaster said. He works with the University of Minnesota Foundation to raise money specifically for transfers, but most donors gravitate toward freshmen support, often because they attended the University as freshman themselves, he added.
Another solution could be to change recruiting efforts geared toward transfers, either starting to target on a national level or working to appeal to more Minnesota students, McMaster said.
Transfer student experience
Transfers say they would choose to enroll at the University again less than other students, according to SERU data. They also report feeling less welcome and less satisfied than non-transfers.
The University has worked to improve the experience and increase three-year graduation rates for transfers by implementing a more robust orientation process, providing more financial aid assistance and creating student groups like the University Transfer Student Board.
Boring, president of the board, transferred to the University as a sophomore in January 2018 and was scared about the prospect of making friends and meeting people.
“I didn’t feel as welcomed, because in the spring, they just really don’t put as much of an effort as they do for the fall,” she said.
Joining the transfer board completely changed her experience. The small community of students with similar difficulties helped her connect with peers.
Boring works to extend the reach of the group and involve more students, who are not required to be transfers, by doing outreach events and learn about their new community.
“Transferring is really hard, but it’s also very rewarding in the end, if you make the most of it,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented part of the SERU data. Transfer students are less likely to choose to enroll at the University again than non-transfers.