Students who find themselves doing poorly in college often feel that they might do better at a different school. But once they examine the requirements to transfer, they realize that their low GPA and bad grades keep them trapped at their current school. I think of this phenomenon as the Transfer Trap: Unable to transfer to another school, yet unlikely to succeed at their current one. There are some issues that students need to consider if they’re doing poorly and want to transfer to another college.
When students are doing poorly in college their GPA suffers, often falling below a 2.0, which in itself can be a key obstacle for transferring. Once students begin to investigate what it would take to transfer, they often find out that the required GPA is above the 2.0 required of students to stay in a particular college. Transfer GPA requirements typically begin at 2.5, but can be 3.0 or even higher for some schools. These numbers refer to the cumulative Grade Point Average, not just the most recent semester or year. Once a cumulative GPA falls below a 2.0 it can be very hard to raise it because of the weight it gives to past poor grades. I’ve encountered students who earned a 2.5 to 3.5 for two or three semesters only to have their cumulative GPA barely rise above a 1.8 because of their freshman grades. While some colleges will consider recent good grades, others won’t even process the application if the cumulative GPA does not meet their requirements.
If a student is “not in good standing” with their college, this can pose another obstacle to transferring schools. Students who are on academic probation are often told by the school that they wish to transfer that they need to work their way off probation before even being considered. If a student is placed on academic suspension, it’s almost impossible for them to transfer immediately in to another four-year school. Very often they’re told to earn successful credits “elsewhere” and then re-apply, which only makes them feel more trapped.
One of the paradoxical situations that students encounter when they want to transfer after not doing well is when the prospective new school wants references from professors, yet because they did poorly in so many classes, who would possibly give them a good reference? This problem can occur in degrees, since some colleges will want a single professor reference, while others may want up to three. Not all colleges ask for references from transfer students, and applying to such colleges might be the only option left for some students, even though those schools would not necessarily be the student’s top pick.
Applying As A Transfer Vs. Freshman Student
One of the most common questions that I’ve received about transferring after doing poorly is “do I even have to tell a new school that I went to college at all?” Most colleges are very clear that they have different criteria and even application processes for students depending on whether they are applying as a freshman or transfer student. In general, if students have taken courses at any institution of higher education, including community colleges, they are considered a transfer student and not a freshman applicant. Colleges may consider a student’s not saying that they attended another college as dishonesty, and if caught, the student risks being expelled. One transfer application I came across actually had a huge box and bold letters right above the signature section that essentially stated “not declaring that you attended another college may result in your immediate expulsion.” In other words, concealing that the student attended another school is very risky, and is not something I would recommend.
Students who wish to transfer to a new college after doing poorly can often find themselves “trapped,” where they cannot move forward to a school where they feel they would do better. Having a low GPA, being on academic probation, or even being unable to obtain professor recommendations are some reasons why students get stuck when they want to transfer. Many are tempted to just apply to a new college as a freshman, but in my experience with college transfers, this can be a risky move that the new college may not tolerate. Many students who find themselves doing poorly in college, because of their fragile academic status, often encounter the phenomenon of the Transfer Trap.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.