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The ‘Transfer Moment’

New York — Colleges that have long overlooked and undervalued transfer students are thinking more carefully about how to recruit, retain, and graduate them. During a session here on Thursday at the College Board’s annual conference, enrollment experts said the nation was having a long-overdue “transfer moment.”

The recession “has rejiggered the way that families look at higher education,” said Stephen J. Handel, associate vice president for undergraduate admissions for the University of California system. High-school students who wouldn’t have even considered community colleges five years ago are giving them a second look. And more are choosing to start their quest for four-year degrees at two-year colleges.

Not long ago, Bonita C. Jacobs, president of the University of North Georgia, formerly North Georgia College and State University, would hear parents say almost apologetically that their son or daughter had enrolled at a community college. Now, she said, “they wear that as a banner of pride.”

Ms. Jacobs, formerly vice president for student development at the University of North Texas, described what she had learned from working with transfer students over the years. Many of them, she’s found, worry about fitting in on their new campuses, and about finding a central place to get information.

“This requires us to think about that transfer student as if this is your favorite niece or nephew,” she said. “What should you do to help them thrive?”

To that end, Ms. Jacobs proposed several ideas, such as required orientation programs for all transfer students. “If we believe that transfer students are at risk in similar ways to a first-semester freshman, and we know from the data that they are,” she said, “how could we not put them through an orientation program?”

Two- and four-year institutions alike, she said, should have a transfer center—a place where students can learn all about how to move from one college to another.

Institutions should also regularly solicit feedback from transfer students, Ms. Jacobs suggested. “We can’t make … assumptions about what it is they need,” she said. She recalled talking to administrators who had insisted all transfer students would want to live off-campus—only to see many of them flock to fill campus-housing vacancies when given the chance to do so.

Another question to ask: Are transfer students on your campus reluctant to identify themselves as such? Ms. Jacobs has encountered some who worried an instructor might treat them differently if they revealed they had started at another college. Confronting such real or perceived stigmas, she said, is crucial for helping transfer students succeed: “If they don’t wear that ‘T’ on their shirt with pride, you have a campus-climate issue.”

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