Transfer Students Feel the Pinch When Money Is Tight

State cuts to higher education are particularly tough for transfer students.

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Even for a school in the midst of a historic budget crisis, the University of Florida's decision to downsize this fall's transfer student class by 33 percent was stunning. The situation is bad news for wannabe Gators, but it also cast gloom over transfer programs in the 28 other states that face projected budget shortfalls—especially the 15 that already have proposed or enacted higher education cuts this year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Florida's public university system has seen $164.9 million in cuts the past two fiscal years, forcing it to reduce enrollment overall. "I've never really been through anything like this before," UF Provost Joe Glover says. On top of that, UF's dramatic transfer reduction was exacerbated by bad timing. Acceptance letters for regular students were within days of being sent when the admissions office was ordered to shrink the student body. Transfer students were forced to take the hit.

Florida is perhaps the most extreme example of transfer students' vulnerability, but others around the country could soon begin to see the flailing economy affect their own opportunities.

The trouble can begin during the clunky and overly complicated transfer admissions process. While students who come from community colleges are often assisted by long-standing agreements between a state's junior colleges and its flagship universities, the path for everyone else—those who are crossing state lines, who come from another four-year university, or who have spent years in the workforce—is far more treacherous. The process is difficult to navigate without the help of counselors and advisers, positions that often are left unfilled when budget cuts need to be made.

Transfer students are "a labor-intensive audience that can fall between the cracks because of personnel," says Jenny Sawyer, the University of Louisville's executive director of admissions. "The transfer process is more complex than the financial aid system." The problem, according to Sawyer, is even more worrisome at urban schools like Louisville, which tend to attract more students from the workforce and out of state.

David Moldoff, a higher education consultant, predicts state governments will soon start passing laws that force schools to streamline all in-state transfers, not just ones from nearby community colleges. These statewide articulation agreements, which are usually unfunded, are designed to show how much a state is committed to higher education access, even as the government slashes funding by double-digit percentages.

"They're not giving any more money, but they're passing a policy," Moldoff says, pointing to New Jersey, which passed such a law in the midst of a severe budget crisis last year. "It's a broad framework without drilling down to the details." The result, once again, benefits transfer students from within the state, leaving behind out-of-state students and those who last went to school well before the new requirements were enacted.

In the immediate future, transfer students will also likely be disproportionately affected by tuition increases and faculty reductions, tactics universities often use to trim costs. Transfer students tend to be poorer than traditional admittees, and with the price of tuition rising faster than the inflation rate, the competition between students for a share of the college's limited federal Pell grant money becomes increasingly important.

Course selection—or lack thereof—is particularly challenging for transfers. Unfilled faculty positions force universities to reduce the number of classes available, and transfer students are usually last to the dinner table, registering for classes after regular students. With fewer options, they are left with the scraps or no classes at all.

The news, however, is not all bad. Next year, the University of Florida will be able to more evenly distribute enrollment cuts, Glover says. Struggling universities continue to reassert their commitment to transfer students, some citing increasing numbers and enhanced recruitment efforts. Private schools, relatively unaffected by state budget woes, remain a strong option for transfer students. Though they tend to be more expensive, they also have better counseling services.