Schools find new ways to welcome community college transfers

The 200 transfer students ate Huli Huli chicken and wore plastic leis at a recent luau held in their honor at USC. But more important than food or party favors, participants said, was the camaraderie and encouragement to join the campus mainstream.

Among the organizers was Rebecca Obadia, who transferred from Santa Monica College to USC last year and experienced the stress of starting at a new university midway through a degree program. Obadia, 26, a public relations major, helped revive a transfer student group at USC and is now its president. Transfer students “don’t have the same needs as freshmen and were not welcomed the way they should have been all these years,” she said.

That reception and other new efforts at private and public schools are part of a trend here and nationwide to better address the needs of these students and ease “transfer shock” as they jump into new academic and social lives long after other students. Colleges and universities are tailoring orientation sessions for them, requiring special classes, bolstering counseling, establishing clubs, setting aside housing and offering more scholarships.


“Transfers are being valued as a resource where before they were an afterthought,” said Janet L. Marling, executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at North Georgia College and State University. They are no longer “the forgotten students.”

The change is driven by the recognition that some of the brightest and most motivated students don’t arrive on campus at age 18 with parents hovering. Schools want the tuition from transfer students to replace revenues from drop-outs. And in states like California, where budget cuts have reduced class offerings, public universities want transfers to graduate as quickly as possible, in two or three years.

(Even with funding problems, the annual number of community college transfers to University of California campuses has increased by about 22%, to 15,220, since 2007, and the number to California State University schools, about 60,000, is about the same as it was five years ago after intervening declines, officials said.)

Aaron De Sal, a Coast Guard veteran, transferred from Santa Monica College last fall to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The psychology major, who is 27 and receives veterans assistance for tuition, said it took some adjusting to the faster paced quarter system from the longer semesters at community college. Just as challenging, he said, was arriving at Cal Poly years after classmates. He said the special orientations helped, as did starting a club for veterans.

“You start out as an outsider at a different time of your college career than most people,” he said. “Socially you’ve got two years to make up.”

In the past, many colleges assumed that transfer students did not need help since they were older than freshmen and had been successful in their previous schools. The long-term graduation rates for transfers tend to be at least as good if not better than those for students who started at the campuses as freshmen.

But research also shows that transfer students’ grades tend to dip in their first term. They also need more immediate academic advising because many face the pressure to finish in two years. “They really need to hit the ground running,” said Eva Rivas, executive director of UC Berkeley’s center for transfer and reentry students.

At one of the recent daylong orientations at Cal State Los Angeles, about 200 new transfer students heard about financial aid, health clinics, housing and social clubs, and were escorted on walking tours. They talked to academic advisors and were allowed to register for classes ahead of some other groups.

Cal State L.A. this fall revived a requirement that transfer students take a two-credit “transition” course that tackles study habits, research methods and career choices.

Vincent Lopez, campus director of admission and recruitment, said current transfer students — expected at about 2,300 this month — are especially focused on completing degrees and launching careers. Many are juggling jobs, and some have children, “responsibilities you are not going to see with typical first-time freshmen,” he said.

Eduardo Saravia, 21, a criminal justice major who spent three years at Los Angeles Valley College, listened attentively during the orientation but said he’s worried that it will take three years, not two as he hoped, to graduate since state budget cuts are making it difficult to enroll in all the courses he needs. To pay tuition, he expects to keep his full-time job as a delivery truck driver and won’t have time for campus social life.

“I mostly just want to get myself ahead and settled in classes,” said Saravia, who lives with his family in North Hollywood.

Transfer students are eligible for the same government-funded financial aid that freshmen are but can lose out on some private grants. In a big boost, the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation recently announced that it was distributing $10.5 million among four UC and 17 Cal State campuses for transfer scholarships. The aid, starting in fall 2013, will provide about 200 grants a year, up to $5,000 per student at UC and $2,500 at Cal State.

Campus officials have also turned attention to housing. UC Berkeley, like many other schools, used to mix transfers and freshmen in the same dorms, which produced some friction. Over the last few years, the campus has set aside most of one dorm for transfers and this year is adding transfer spots in a new building that excludes freshmen, said Martin Takimoto, a UC Berkeley housing spokesman. Transfer students “want more space and privacy,” he said.

Organizations are on the rise too. Among them is the Tau Sigma National Honor Society for transfers, which was started in 1999 at Auburn University in Alabama and now has 100 chapters nationwide, including new ones at UCLA and USC.

Besides these groups, USC last year established a support program for transfers and military veterans and this fall added seminars on time management, internships and jobs.

“We try to help these students find a niche,” said program coordinator Syreeta Greene, who welcomed students to the luau.

Pricella Jah, 19, who transferred to USC after two years at Mt. San Antonio College, said her anxieties were easing as she met more people in the same situation. Soon, she hopes to even ditch the campus map.

“By spring semester,” she said, “I will know where all the buildings are.”