College students on Long Island are increasingly changing schools in their undergraduate years, often for financial reasons, challenging the traditional trajectory of going to a single institution to complete a four-year degree after high school.
Incoming transfer students are up nearly 18 percent Islandwide from 8,343 in 2007 to 9,841 in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available from the U.S. Department of Education.
Nationally, transfers also have been on the rise, experts say. About one-third of all college students transferred schools at least once in the five-year period beginning in 2006.
Farmingdale State College, SUNY College at Old Westbury, Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York Institute of Technology, Briarcliffe College, Suffolk County Community College and Nassau Community College saw a jump in the number of transfer students admitted during those years.
Transfers into Stony Brook, Hofstra, Adelphi and Long Island universities held steady or declined over the same period, according to federally reported data through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
"The transfer population is large and it is growing," said Alexander Ott, associate dean of academic support and enrollment services at New York Institute of Technology and a past president of the New York State Transfer and Articulation Association, a consortium of more than 600 advisers and higher education professionals.
The phenomenon has created a "swirling effect" in higher education that has turned transfer students into an important population -- though this group is not counted in federal graduation-rate data and is invisible within many postsecondary school rankings.
Coveted enrollment source
As Long Island colleges face tough headwinds because of a decline in high-school-age students here, transfers have become a coveted source of enrollment at summer's end, some college admission officials say.
"Transfers were not the focus before now," said Richard Gatteau, assistant provost for undergraduate academic affairs at Stony Brook University, which has an orientation, an academic support program and a one-credit new-student seminar for transfer students. "I don't want to say they were the forgotten students, but there hasn't always been the robust effort like we have with the first-year students."
Part of the growth can be attributed to students who would've otherwise gone to four-year schools starting at community colleges. But students also are moving between four-year institutions, between two-year institutions and even leaving four-year schools for community colleges.
Separate data from the State University of New York show increased transfer activity within its 64-campus system, including an uptick in the number of students "reverse-transferring" -- that is, leaving a four-year college for a two-year community college -- since the economic downturn took hold in 2008.
Students who transfer are skeptical, more career-driven and cost-conscious than their predecessors, admissions officials and experts said. Many decide not to return to their out-of-town colleges in the last few weeks of August.
"College is too expensive to not be completely happy," said James Williams, 20, of Carle Place, who went to Marist College in Poughkeepsie. "I realized that I didn't like it enough to be there and that it wasn't worth all this debt."
After his first semester, Williams told his parents he wanted to come back to Long Island. "Are you sure you want to come home?" they asked, believing he would be miserable as a commuter student here while most of his friends were away at school.
So Williams transferred to Towson University in Maryland for the spring semester. It was a larger school, and his best buddy from high school was having a positive experience there.
"That was a very stupid decision," Williams said. "I missed Long Island a lot."
Back on Long Island
He finally transferred to Adelphi University as a sophomore, earning a scholarship and saving money on room and board because he is commuting from his parents' home. At least half of his close friends have followed, returning mostly to Adelphi or Hofstra, Williams said.
James Hoyt, professor of student personnel services and transfer coordinator at Nassau Community College in Garden City since 1976, said the reverse-transfer students often are the ones who don't "make it" at the four-year schools -- save for those who need to return because of unexpected circumstances, such as a health problem or a change in finances.
The change often is made because their grades have slipped or they don't fit into their chosen campus. "Either it is the best year of their lives and they have a ball, but they blow it academically, or it is the worst year of their lives and they miss their families and their friends and they just want to come home," Hoyt said. "Sometimes, they're our best students because they've gotten that immaturity out of their systems."
Moreover, since the recession, more students with bachelor's degrees have been enrolling in vocational or career-oriented disciplines, Hoyt said.
"There are those who go away to a four-year school and come out with a philosophy degree or another kind of degree where there's not a lot going on career-wise, and they come here for a nursing degree or something like that," he said.
For Christopher Lawrence, 32, coming back to NCC was like "wiping the slate clean."
After he graduated in 1999 from Chaminade High School in Mineola, he began his freshman year at St. John's University in Jamaica Estates. Over the three semesters he was there, his grade-point average dropped to a 1.3 out of 4.0.
"Confusion can be very expensive," Lawrence said. "You can't spin your wheels at a four-year school, especially if you see your grades slipping."
He returned to NCC, commuting from his childhood home in Bethpage. He then transferred to the University of Connecticut, where he graduated magna cum laude four semesters later with a bachelor's degree in English literature.
He hopes to become a professor. He begins a doctorate program in English literature at Penn State next month.
There is no federal data on the success of transfer students such as Lawrence because there's no mechanism to measure students who leave their first college or university. Graduation rates track first-time students entering their first college.
Focus on transfer students
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in Herndon, Va., which provides information on enrollment trends and completion rates, is among the few places where transfer students are studied.
The group's executive director, Doug Shapiro, said students' college years -- both academically and from a financial-aid standpoint -- should be considered more broadly.
"It doesn't make sense to tailor policies to fit the traditional student, the first-time college student and their first-year institution." Shapiro said.
Ott of NYIT agreed.
Often, he said, colleges focus so much on retaining freshmen that they neglect programs for entering transfer students, who need different information and support.
"The system in general was set up for freshmen, so the process hasn't caught up with reality," Ott said.
To help ease the transition from community college into a bachelor's degree program, several of Long Island's four-year schools have established articulation agreements.
Hofstra University lets students earn an associate degree at NCC and Suffolk County Community College before completing a bachelor's at the Hempstead school.
"Long Island is one of the most highly recruited areas in the country," said Sunil Samuel, Hofstra's director of admission. "This is a way to keep these kids on the Island."
Gabrielle Yeager, 19, of Locust Valley, said often students get caught up in the pressure of getting into a name-brand college and ultimately find it may not be the right "fit" for them.
"All we ever heard when we were 14 or 15 is 'The economy is really bad and no one is getting a job,' so there was really this pressure to get into these schools," said Yeager, who decided in June not to return to Northeastern University.
A combination of realizing the Boston school didn't have the photography programming she wanted, the high tuition cost and a falling out with her freshman friends motivated the decision. She plans to take this fall semester off to work at a restaurant in Roslyn and reapply to Baruch College, Hunter College or Fashion Institute of Technology for their Manhattan locations.
"I switched my major after the first semester because I wasn't entirely happy," Yeager said. "But then by the second semester I still wasn't completely happy. It just wasn't worth the money I was paying at all and the money I would eventually have to pay back."
Many transfer students are still making final decisions about enrolling for the fall semester. Here are three key questions to ask before enrolling:
How much does it really cost to attend the college you're considering?
If transferring from a community college, be aware that the tuition/fees of four-year colleges are usually much higher. Be sure to have a full financial aid package in hand before signing up -- and make sure you understand it. You have a right to know exactly how much a semester will cost you.
How many credits are you receiving and, most important, how do they count toward the degree you are pursuing?
This point is essential -- transfer credit only does you good if it counts toward your degree requirements.
How long will it take to complete the degree you want to pursue?
While bachelor's degrees require 120 credits minimum, many degrees require more. Make sure to talk to an academic adviser, though there can be issues with course sequencing and availability that might slow you down, even if you have a lot of credit transfer toward the degree. Understanding total time to completion is critical as there are limits on some forms of financial aid.