When your student wants to transfer or take time off from college


By Jo Calhoun

Remember how much time you and your student invested in finding the right college?

That rainy spring break touring soggy, leafless campuses — the college fairs, counselor visits and interviews — the seemingly countless hours dedicated to the Common App and essays?

That investment makes it especially tough when students announce that they want to transfer or to take time off. Here are some things to consider if your student says:

“I want to transfer.”

First, transfer talk is common. Why? Remember the depth of that initial investment in the college choice? If something at their institution is less than perfect, students may have second thoughts.

Bumps in the road like a roommate problem, unsatisfying course work, the “value proposition” (this isn’t worth what we’re paying for it), a lack of connection with peers or professors — these things can cause students to second-guess their college choice. Your best option as a parent? Listen and then listen some more.

Sort out homesickness issues.

Almost always, this just takes time. Most students who transfer wind up much closer to home. That’s fine. But negotiate a time frame before a transfer decision is made. Usually persisting at an institution for at least one year is wise. Former high school romances have resolved themselves, students have had time to find the right clubs, activities and friends, and have begun to identify an academic home base.

Sometimes students develop a clear preference for a field of study not offered at their institution. If their thinking is not impulsive, if it is persistent, support it.

 “I want to take time off.”

Many students choose to take time off because they feel unfocused and unmotivated. A lot of positive things can happen for a student during time away — personal growth, increased focus, independence and discipline (clocking in to an 8-5 job can do wonders!), a sense of professional direction. Much of this change results simply from interrupting 13+ lock-step years of school. It’s totally reasonable to ask your student to present you with a realistic plan for how he or she will spend that time away from school.

Mental health issues emerge during the college years.

While students can usually find excellent support at their school’s Counseling Center, clinical depression and/or anxiety can be paralyzing and can lead to an entire term of failing grades. In addition, a number of major personality disorders emerge in this age group; a sudden onset of a psychotic episode is terrifying for a student. You may need to enlist on- or off-campus support for your student to determine whether time off is called for to address mental health concerns.

Understand that there can be unanticipated consequences for students taking time off.

Help your student with a checklist that includes non-enrollment’s impact on: 1) financial aid; 2) health insurance; 3) deferment of student loans; 4) institutional policies on progress towards graduation. Also, remember that if your student leaves during the middle of the term, a tuition refund is unlikely.

A supportive conversation with your student about transfer or time off is crucial. Can this happen over Thanksgiving break? If not, consider a reassuring campus visit — it may make all the difference. You know your student best. Trust your instincts.