A venerable concept in transfer student research and practice has been that of “transfer shock,” a term first coined in 1965 by John R. Hills and used to describe an often temporary decrease in GPA seen in transfer students. Some people attribute a stigma to vertical transfer students (students who transfer from associate to bachelor’s programs), reasoning that these students don’t do well academically after transferring, so they, or their community colleges, or both, must not be very good. Indeed, multiple studies have found an average decrease in vertical transfer students’ GPAs immediately following transfer. But how prevalent is transfer shock, really, and what factors might be associated with it?
Enter A2B, the Associate’s to Bachelor’s research and program improvement projects, one of which is TOP, the Transfer Opportunity Project, funded by the federal Institute of Education Sciences. TOP has been studying transfer, particularly vertical transfer, using students, staff and faculty at the City University of New York. CUNY has 20 undergraduate colleges, ranging from open-access community colleges to highly selective bachelor’s colleges, tens of thousands of transfer students per year, and a centralized data system, and is thus an ideal place to study transfer.
One of TOP’s studies has involved following a cohort of 5,326 CUNY students who entered community college as first-time freshmen in fall 2013 and subsequently transferred to a CUNY bachelor’s program. TOP has tracked these students’ GPAs each semester. We have also determined which types of students were most likely to show a GPA change, as well as the relationship of GPA changes and the likelihood of graduation.
Our first takeaway is that there was significant variety in student GPA change after transfer. Forty percent of transfer students saw an increase in GPA, with an average posttransfer GPA that was 0.45 points higher than the average GPA before transfer. (For stability in measurement, we used students’ cumulative GPA before transfer to compare to their semester GPA after transfer.) But a decline in GPA was more common: 59 percent of transfer students saw a decrease in GPA, with an average posttransfer GPA that was 0.72 points lower than the average GPA before transfer.
Our second takeaway is that some of the GPA change we observed during transfer represents regular semester-to-semester fluctuation in grades. Specifically, 57 percent of students showed an increase and 42 percent showed a decrease in GPA during comparison semesters when they did not transfer. This means that not all 59 percent of students who saw a decrease in GPA during transfer experienced this decrease due to transfer; rather, the decrease during transfer happens to about 17 percent more students than we would expect in any semester. However, among those whose GPAs decreased, grades went down more with transfer, with an average decrease of 0.72 during transfer and 0.53 without transfer.
Our third takeaway is that whether GPA decreased with transfer differed by student demographic characteristics and transfer timing. Men were more likely to have a decrease than women, and Black and Hispanic students were more likely to have a decrease than white students. Students who transferred without an associate degree and students who transferred earlier in their time at community college were also more likely to have a decrease, compared to students who transferred after receiving an associate degree and students who transferred later.
Lastly, we found that GPA decreasing with transfer was associated with a lower likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree. For example, a student whose GPA dropped by 0.5 points after transfer had a 9 percent lower probability of obtaining a bachelor’s degree, compared to students whose GPA did not drop after transfer.
So does transfer shock exist or is it a myth? At least in the cohort we examined, it’s a bit of both. Transfer affected some of our students’ GPAs adversely, but it was by no means a universal phenomenon. Around 17 percent of our students appear to have shown a decrease in GPA associated with transfer beyond what we would expect to see in any normal semester, and 40 percent of our students showed an increase in GPA when they transferred, just as they would in any normal semester.
There is certainly no reason to interpret our findings as evidence that vertical transfer students are unprepared for academic life in bachelor’s colleges, but they do emphasize the importance of academic departments and transfer receiving colleges supporting new transfer students and helping them adjust to their new school. Also, given that GPA decrease after transfer is associated with lower graduation rates, it could be useful for institutions to monitor transfer student grades in the first semester and identify students who experienced significant decreases, with the goal of providing academic support in the next semester.
TOP is documenting college behaviors that may be contributing to GPA decreases when students transfer. For example, from other A2B work, we know that all of CUNY’s bachelor’s colleges finish evaluating a typical transfer student’s transcript less than two months before classes start, months after continuing students have registered. This often puts transfer students at a disadvantage in terms of registering for desirable courses, course times and professors, and it may contribute to GPA decreases.
Other college behaviors, such as a lack of adequate orientation services and providing a welcoming atmosphere, could be contributing to Black and Hispanic students being more likely to show transfer-associated GPA decreases. Students from underrepresented groups have been shown to have a greater sense of belonging in community colleges, as opposed to bachelor’s colleges, and helping them adjust to the new environment may help them maintain their prior performance in their courses.
We in TOP, and in all the A2B transfer projects, will continue to examine hypotheses and findings concerning transfer student success, aiming to understand what factors predict and contribute to that success, no matter where a student began their educational journey.
Kerstin Gentsch is a senior policy analyst in CUNY’s Office of Applied Research, Evaluation, and Data Analytics (OAREDA). Sarah Truelsch is assistant dean of policy research in OAREDA. Yoshiko Oka is a research analyst in OAREDA. Alexandra W. Logue is a Research Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education, Graduate Center, CUNY, and the principal or co-principal investigator of each of the A2B projects. From 2008 to 2014 she was executive vice chancellor and University Provost of the CUNY system.