Higher education institutions don’t need to be told that it’s essential to ensure a positive student experience. Most college leadership teams are well aware of how everything from initial marketing emails to on-campus community events affects the student journey. But some institutions have a blind spot — students who transfer from other schools.

Data clearly shows transfer students have a markedly different college experience than their peers who start and complete a degree program at the same school. This is why the phrase “transfer shock” exists. It was initially coined to identify a characteristic dip in GPA that transfer students typically experience. But lower grades are just one example of transfer shock.

Students who switch schools often don’t reap the rewards of their previously earned credits. In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that transfer students lose an average 43 percent of their credits. These students often face other academic issues and social struggles as well.

To truly provide the best possible experience for all students, higher education institutions would be wise to start thinking about what they can do to better support those who transfer from other schools. There are actually several ways colleges can take action.

5 ways to lessen transfer shock for students who change colleges

Creating a satisfying experience for students who initially start at another institution isn’t always as simple as adopting a more liberal transfer policy. Specific residency requirements, for example, are needed to ensure students complete enough of their education at the institution where they intend to earn their degree. That said, there are other ways to better support transfer students.

1. Be upfront about your transfer policy and create degree plans

Being honest about how many credits from another institution will count toward a degree at your college is essential. Being evasive will only compound retention issues. Jim Callinan, associate director of enrollment strategy at Collegis Education, explains that degree programs at many schools have very specific pathways that transfer students don’t know about until it’s too late.

“A student may have more than enough credits, but all their general education requirements plus the prerequisites for the program itself may not have lined up perfectly, thus knocking them back,” he offers. This means a student who thought they could transfer 80 credits may only be able to come in with 40 counting toward their intended degree.

Being transparent about your transfer policy and how it will impact a particular student is just the first step. Even with that knowledge, students might not know how to proceed. Their experience will be a lot simpler if they’re provided one point of contact they can reach throughout the process as well as a clear road map. They want to know how to go from where they are now to becoming a degree-holding graduate.

“Preliminary degree planning becomes a differentiator at these institutions,” Callinan explains. “They take the time to walk a student through what counts, what they’re anticipating and their options for credits that may not have counted.”

2. Consider ways to offer credit for life experience

Not every student who changes schools is a full-time freshman or sophomore. Many transfer students are working 40 hours a week, and they may have taken a break from school. Paul Kramer, director of student experience at Collegis Education, says this is especially true in the world of online education.

“Maybe they got married, got a job and now they’re going back to school,” he offers.

Adult students, whether online or on-campus, might not have been taking a full course load. But they were deepening their knowledge of certain subjects through their work experiences. It’s worth incorporating options for students to gain credit by demonstrating their mastery of certain material.

There are numerous options to extend credit for prior learning. Some institutions make use of various exams. It’s also becoming more common to extend credit for various licenses and certifications, particularly in the technology sector. Another option is to offer a course that incorporates a portfolio-based review or different assessment checkpoints.

“I’m a big believer in the credit for prior learning courses,” Callinan offers. He notes this type of class creates an instant community for transfer students and also shows them a path forward. “They can do prior learning assessments along the way or they can build out their portfolio using their previous experiences to demonstrate that it’s equivalent to earning college credit at that institution.”

It’s also worth paying particular attention to veterans and active duty service members. They have access to a range of educational benefits, but Callinan says many of them aren’t even aware that some of their military experience can count toward a degree.

3. Establish orientation as a process

Every college takes a different approach to orientation. Everything from whether it’s mandatory to how long it takes can vary. To help ensure a smooth transition for transfer students, a well-thought-out orientation plan is crucial. Kramer says the best ones involve working with students to get them up to speed and make sure they understand how to be successful.

“Have an actual orientation plan versus asking students to go to a one-time orientation where you just attend and then you’re done,” Kramer suggests.

Following up with transfer students is really the key to creating a solid orientation process for them. It’s important to proactively reach out to students to find out how they’re adjusting and how well they’re doing from an academic standpoint. Advisors shouldn’t wait until a student starts falling behind or stops attending class before making contact.

“Early alerts are definitely good, but it could still be too late,” Kramer warns.

4. Create a mentorship program

Researchers have long recommended peer mentor programs as a tactic to improve student learning. Sometimes it’s more comfortable talking to a fellow student than to a faculty member, no matter how accessible the instructors are. Considering transfer students’ likelihood of experiencing certain struggles, they’re particularly in need of strong peer mentors. This approach to easing the transition for transfer students even works in the online learning world. Callinan is a believer in this approach and has witnessed its positive impact.

“They’d actually have a student that’s dedicated to be their go-to resource outside faculty if they’re having difficulty in the online environment,” Callinan offers.

5. Train staff how to empower transfer students who are struggling

Above all else, consider that training advisors and support staff can make a huge difference in improving the experience for transfer students. Checking in by simply asking, “How are things going?” isn’t likely to result in dialogue.

“Have conversations with some kind of purpose,” Kramer suggests. “The advising is critical.” Keep in mind, he says, that students could be in the middle of just about anything when they answer a call. Taking the time to ask thoughtful questions that get at something specific will typically lead to more useful information.

And should this type of discussion reveal that a transfer student is considering leaving, advisors should be prepared to navigate that discussion rather than simply encouraging the student to return when they’re ready. Callinan says a cultural mindset centered on encouragement and empowerment goes a long way. And that also goes for any staff who may be a point of contact along the way, such as the employee manning the front desk who might otherwise provide straightforward information on how to drop classes.

Now is the time to act

While the above tactics might sound like they’re part of some pipe dream, plenty of higher education institutions are proving they’re both possible and valuable. Don’t let a perceived lack of resources become a barrier.

“You have to get more creative to do this,” Callinan encourages. “An online peer mentor program, for instance, could be student-worker money that you already have budgeted. You’re just reallocating the way you’re utilizing student workers to support classroom environments.”

It also helps to be forward-thinking. Creating a better experience for transfer students could really help with retention efforts. You may even gain referrals to boot.

Prioritize transfer students’ experiences

It’s understandable that transfer students experience some uneasiness once they begin classes at their new college. But a severe case of transfer shock that leaves them struggling both academically and psychologically is far from inevitable. Luckily, you can see there are many interventions that can make for a smoother transition.

Of course, it’s important to get transfer students through the door in the first place. Many of the tactics that great admissions teams use during the enrollment process are just as effective for attracting students who started at another school as they are for first-time applicants. Providing transparent information about financial aid and transfer policies, responding to questions promptly and outlining clear next steps are all important for guiding students toward matriculation.

For more on how to effectively recruit students and support your goals, download our guide: “Nine Ways to Improve the Student Experience and Grow Enrollment.”