March 4, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Transfer in, Transfer Out?

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The idea that someone might transfer out of Cornell isn’t too unfathomable. People joke about transferring out and hating Cornell, especially when prelim season rolls around, when the weather gets cold and when recruitment, selection and cutting for exclusive organizations begins.

But the idea that someone who transferred into Cornell might transfer back out? It’s something that those of us in the transfer student community joke about, but nobody actually thinks we’ll follow through with. We’ve already made the choice to come here — to leave everything from our first year behind. Some of us had to apply to transfer, and some of us with the transfer option spent our entire first year knowing we’d probably leave. We’ve already left our schools and our friends behind, leaving them for Cornell. How would that look, transferring back to our friends at our old schools? How would we approach telling our friends and family, having already switched schools in favor of Cornell, that now we’re transferring back to where we started?

And yet, what I’ve found as the Student Assembly’s transfer representative is that transferring back out is not an uncommon phenomenon. From talking with a multitude of transfer students, I’ve heard a recurring story: transfer students do transfer back out of Cornell.

The statistics support the anecdotal data I’ve been hearing:

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Courtesy of Cornell University

The transfer rate of graduation is lower and more varied than the first time freshmen rate of graduation.

While the freshman graduation rate within 150 percent of the time (six years) is steady around 93-94 percent, the transfer rate of graduation is lower and more varied. And this means that fewer transfers are graduating within six years or graduating at all. The data speak to the fact that transfers are not staying at Cornell, most likely transferring out to another school or transferring back to their old schools.

Administration and students, especially returning students, are largely ignorant of this trend. When I bring up this issue in meetings with administration, it’s always the first they’re hearing of this trend or noticing it. However, from being so involved with the transfer community, I’ve had multiple transfer friends tell me that they seriously thought about transferring back to their old schools during our first semester at Cornell just this past fall. Many of them kept me in the loop as they considered this process and weighed the pros and cons of transferring back. I’ve spoken to returning transfer students who have been here for two or three years since they initially transferred, and they relayed anecdotes from their few years involved with the transfer community. They’ve seen transfers come and go and seen first year transfers come in and decide to transfer back out.

This is due to no failures on transfer students’ part. I am incredibly resistant to the prevailing notion that some people “just can’t make it” at Cornell — that they’re not prepared enough, not smart enough, not savvy and headstrong enough and not utility minded enough to “stick it out” at Cornell. Some of the best, hard working, smart, coolest people I’ve known and met at Cornell — the students who have honestly killed it here — include those who have spoken to me most seriously about transferring back or actually have.

I met one of my first friends at Cornell on the  second day of O-week just last semester. Within the first few weeks, he told me he wanted to transfer back to his old school, and kept me updated on how the application process to his old school  was going. In his brief time at Cornell, he got into an improv group, got a research position in the chemistry department and pursued a double major in chemistry and English.

But this semester, he’s no longer here. Within a semester, he knew he wanted to transfer back and he ultimately decided leaving was the best decision. He said that the friends he’d made and the experiences he’d had at Cornell made the decision so much harder, but he knew it was the right choice.

Transfer students who choose to leave Cornell don’t leave because they can’t make it here. These transfer students I’m speaking of do remarkably well and become incredibly involved; they’re in clubs, organizations, research and excel in their classes. It is not an individual failing on their part. The fact that the overall rate is so low and that transferring out is such a common, although under-discussed issue, is indicative of a systemic failure on Cornell’s part to adequately meet transfer student needs during their first months at Cornell, which is inarguably the most crucial time in determining the future success of all students at Cornell.

At the same time, I’m attempting to remain conscious of not overgeneralizing the transfer experience; all of our experiences are vastly different and we have an incredible diversity of students, backgrounds, and experiences and students. Some transfers students would never even dream of leaving Cornell now that they’re here, especially those who have transferred from smaller community colleges. But some transfers are no longer with us at Cornell.

In truth, I think Cornell does a remarkably exceptional job working with transfer students, as they’re aware of how large the transfer student population is. We make up about a fifth of every graduating class. However, every process can be improved and we should never be complacent about any student being dissatisfied with their Cornell experience.

I have my suspicions about what the big reasons that cause students to transfer out. One of my suspicions is that the retention rate is strongly related to the transfer housing situation, as much of the anecdotal data I have heard stems from transfer students not receiving housing for their first year, spurring them to apply to transfer back within the first few months of being at Cornell. My friend who transferred back to his old school did not receive housing last semester, forcing him to find his own off-campus housing, and he ended up having to live in an abandoned frat house half a mile from West Campus, populated only by grad students. I have begun discussions around this concern and met with the vice provost of Enrollment, ResLife and the vice president of Student and Campus Life to discuss my concerns and suspicions.

We need to look into bettering the state of transfer students here at Cornell. No student should ever feel like they are not supported at any school enough to the degree where they feel the need to transfer out. No student should feel as if transferring out is their only option. As transfer students, many of us leave behind so much and give up our first years to be here. We deserve better.

Cat Huang is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at cgh66@cornell.edu.