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Transfer students at Stockton University can opt in to a transfer seminar course, providing a space for them to learn more about the institution and connect with their transfer peers.

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In 2002, Tom Grites was thrust into teaching a first-year seminar course at Stockton University in New Jersey after another instructor left abruptly in mid-August. Grites, then working as a staff member in the provost’s office, revised the curriculum over the weekend and launched his first section of Contemporary American Education the next Monday.

But that was the only session Grites would teach to first-years.

Every semester following, Contemporary American Education was offered exclusively to transfer students. Stockton’s first transfer experience course was designed to build peer relationships and help familiarize learners with the institution and its staff, while still fulfilling credit requirements for graduation.

In the 20-plus years since, Stockton has expanded its transfer seminar offerings and seen high rates of persistence and graduation for course participants. Grites, now retired but still teaching as an adjunct and advising part-time in the athletics department, touts the initiative as “economically and politically free,” with little to no resources required to offer the course but with immeasurable impact on the transfer student experience.

What’s the need: Transfer students can often feel like an invisible population, Grites explains, unable to identify other transfers and hesitant to ask questions of their peers and reveal their unfamiliarity with the institution.

Of Stockton’s 2,300 or so new undergraduates, just over one-third are transfer students. For the fall 2023 semester, Stockton admitted 728 transfers (its lowest number in the past five years), making up 32 percent of the 2,258-strong incoming class.

The largest share of this fall’s transfers are juniors (45 percent), but a quarter are first-year and 27 percent second-year learners, according to institutional research data. Most come from community colleges, Grites says.

In the early 2000s, Grites was researching transfer students and was inspired by Northern Illinois University’s transfer experience course, UNIV 201, and decided to modify his class to focus on transfers.

Contemporary American Education remained largely the same in content in the years following, covering organization, administration, financing, curriculum, assessment and accreditation of K-12 and higher education. The change was the student makeup.

Often, transfer courses can be specialized courses that add to a student’s credit load (and tuition) or can jeopardize a student’s graduation. Rather than creating something different, Stockton courses weave transitional components into existing curricula.

How it works: Stockton’s general studies courses and first-year seminars are interdisciplinary, so the course fulfilled requirements for students across majors. Transfers are also required to complete at least four general studies courses, so the transfer seminar helps meet that graduation requirement and creates relationships between other transfer students.

Incoming transfer students can opt in to the seminar during course registration, and the courses are capped at 25 to 30 students. The small course size makes the class more engaging, with class discussions, group work and relationships between instructor and peers, Grites explains. Sometimes nontransfers take the class to fulfill other graduation requirements, which he also allows.

“Within the first six weeks, I knew that I was on to something,” Grites says. “You could just see the difference in the way the students jelled—you know, they communicated with each other.”

The impetus of the transfer experience course is that it requires no curriculum modification, Grites explains. There’s no content review, no additional resources, nothing unique other than the student population is only transfers.

Often, after teaching a transfer-exclusive course for a term, faculty members do elect to weave in additional components, such as a library tour, cross-departmental research initiative or transfer-specific writing assignment.

Measuring success: Grites noticed something was different after the first term. Later, institutional data would show students who took transfer seminars persisted and graduated at a higher rate than their peers, and course reviews showed students’ positive reviews of the course.

Since 2012, students who participate in transfer seminars have persisted and graduated at higher rates on average, compared to their peers (with the one exception of the spring 2019 cohort, which had a retention rate three percentage points lower than the total transfer population).

Among transfers in fall 2021, 93 percent who participated in a seminar retained for two semesters and 85 percent retained for three semesters, compared to their peers who did not take a transfer-only course. The fall 2018 cohort had a 78 percent four-year graduation rate and 75 percent six-year graduation rate, compared to 58 percent of all transfers graduating within four years and 69 percent graduating within six.

The secret sauce is the classroom dynamics, Grites says. “They were all together as new transfers … you could just see that big sense of relief.”

Over the years, Grites has partnered with faculty and staff members teaching multiple sections of a course to offer one exclusively as a transfer seminar. Now, Stockton offers between 10 to 12 transfer seminars each fall and five to eight in the spring term.

“It’s just been the best thing I’ve done in my career,” Grites says. “Because I see the success with individual students.”

Stakeholders at Stockton have talked about making transfer seminars a requirement for incoming students, but identifying enough courses to serve both first-year and transfer students remains a challenge due to the large transfer class.

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