The Privilege of the Non-Transfer Student

About 40 percent of all young people who actually complete a college degree will get that degree from a college other than the one at which they began. The business of transfer credit is a massive change in higher ed over the past fifty years, going from being an occasional need to a regular part of doing business. Whether it’s the cost-conscious student who launches with two years at a community college before continuing at the regional state school, or the student who follows a friend or a partner to a new campus, or the student who’s had to take some time away and then come back to school after they’ve moved across the country or had a child, transfer credit is just a baseline of America’s higher education model, and an important contribution to college accessibility.

But the ability to do college without transfer credit, the ability to do it “the old-fashioned way,” is actually a marker of an enormous number of other benefits and privileges that go unspoken. The most obvious, of course, is that a non-transfer student has the life stability and the financial resources to stay put, to avoid disruption, to take the simple ballistic path of starting in Fall ’19 and finishing in Spring ’23. At schools that rarely take transfer students, in fact, the incoming freshmen will be met at the door with materials proclaiming them in advance to be The Class of 2023. The presumption of continuity is a taken-for-granted part of their experience.

And when we talk about transfer credit, what kinds of schools are we talking about? Community colleges are almost entirely in the transfer credit business, creating detailed articulation agreements with schools throughout their region, bolting their gen-ed engines into other schools’ majors. The recipients of those transfer students are most often the lower tier of state institutions, the so-called “regional comprehensives” like UW-Parkside or Eastern Michigan or Cal State Stanislaus. The flagship research universities, the public elites, take far fewer transfers than the regionals. Only about three percent of the University of Michigan’s undergrads got there through transfer; four percent of the University of Vermont; four percent of the University of North Carolina.

The private elite schools take even fewer. When Princeton decided to accept thirteen transfer students for Fall 2018, it was a news story. Duke has half a percent of undergrads who transferred; Stanford slightly less than that. These are schools designed for the comfortable, designed for those who can take an uninterrupted four year path for granted.

And the courses that most often qualify for transfer applicability—courses in the general education and introductory curricula—are the ones most often remanded to adjunct faculty in those less-than-elite colleges. It’s not that adjuncts are bad teachers, far from it. But contingent faculty have less awareness of the other resources that the college has, they aren’t available for out-of-class consultations either during the semester or in subsequent semesters, they can’t do any meaningful advising because they don’t know the school or even their own departments well enough to offer well-informed coaching. They can’t welcome students to be a member of the community, because they aren’t part of the community themselves

When we think of transfer students, we most often think that it’s just another path to college completion. But it’s not a parallel path—it’s a path to a different definition of college completion, at a different kind of college that carries different kinds of life prospects, with a different set of experiences along the way.

More on that tomorrow.