For many new students, the first-year college experience is an academic and social buffet, a dizzying array of activities and opportunities to herald the passage into adulthood. Not so for transfer students, a growing but largely neglected group whose needs are as varied as the circumstances that bring them to campus in the first place.
That's starting to change. With more students opting to start their higher education at affordable community colleges and the stagnant economy sending even more late-blooming learners back to school, campus administrators find that catering to transfers and other nontraditional students makes sense.
With an average student age of 27 and more than 75 percent of its 12,500 undergraduates starting their college careers elsewhere, the University of Missouri-St. Louis is one of the most prominent transfer-heavy schools around. The school offers transfers a student union study lounge and resource center, peer mentors to help ease their transition and an honor society specifically for them.
"It's the perfect school to go back to in my category," said Scott Tapp, 34, a senior public policy major who earned his high school equivalency degree early when he was 16 and has spent the past 18 years in the workplace. "There were more people in my age range than 18- or 19-year-olds, especially in evening classes."
Tapp, the father of a newborn daughter, continues to work as a computer industry and financial services consultant. He is active in student government and spends 20 hours a week at his campus job in the transfer services office.
Among his peers, such campus involvement is largely the exception. The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual Indiana University study that examines student life on campuses across the country, found that transfer students on average are less likely to interact with faculty, collaborate with classmates, participate in campus activities or seek career counseling and advice.
More than 40 percent of the students responding to the survey from 769 colleges and universities were classified as transfer students.
"These are students who fall through the cracks," said Bonita Jacobs, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas and executive director of its National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students.
At North Texas, which this year admitted 4,000 transfer students, 150 of those students live together in a special dormitory wing set aside for transfers.
"Campuses are realizing how valuable these students are," said Marc Cutright, also a North Texas associate professor of higher education. "They are very mature students who come in and add a lot to the culture."
At the University of California-Santa Barbara, an annual infusion of 1,500 transfer students led officials to create a four-credit "transfer success" course that teaches effective study habits and stress management techniques. The course also helps transfer students cultivate relationships with professors and they hear from other students who successfully made the same transition.
Gushchyan said the course has not only helped her adapt to the larger campus, it also introduced her to a social network of similar students.
"It's all transfers, so you can relate to everybody in there," Gushchyan said. "People who have been here since freshman year, they've already established a group of friends. It's harder to find those connections" as a transfer student.