What can advisors and professors do when students express an interest in leaving Dickinson?
Every year, some students will consider withdrawing from Dickinson, most with the intention of transferring to a different school. Conversations about this high-stakes decision can be challenging for both students and professors. Students are facing a consequential choice that will affect not only their academic plans but also their social connections—with peers, staff, and faculty. Often, students worry about disappointing their friends, deans, coaches, parents…and you! Remember that it’s quite normal for students to experience challenges, express dissatisfaction, and consider the option of moving to a different school. Over the years in Biddle House, we’ve found that we’re most effective when we try to help students find reasons to stay at Dickinson rather than attempt to talk them out of leaving.
Fortunately, many of the same practices that underlie successful advising relationships also prove effective in conversations about transfer. In fact, simply building an effective advising relationship is one of the best ways you can help!
- Convey that you’re willing to take the time to understand their perspective and the issues they’re facing.
- Demonstrate that you’re invested in their growth and success.
- Use your expert “web of knowledge” to help them perceive sophisticated connections among their academic, personal, civic, and professional goals.
Among the most common reasons that students choose to leave an institution is that they don’t see a place for themselves. As an advisor, one of your goals should be to help them become a full member of our “community of inquiry.”
- Have they built intellectual connections? Social connections? Connections that span the intellectual and social dimensions of their lives on campus?
In addition, students often transfer because they haven’t identified a clear way forward. Instead, they perceive a gap or mismatch: the programs and resources available at their current institution don’t appear to align with their aspirations and priorities. Sometimes, students perceive a mismatch even though they haven’t yet fully defined their goals!
- Are they on a path that will lead them to discover, refine, or confirm their sense of purpose? Why did they decide to go to college? Why did they choose Dickinson?
As always, you don’t need to have all the answers or take on the entire responsibility for helping students address their concerns. Instead, a careful and caring referral to a campus colleague may be the very best thing—especially if you make a personal introduction and check back with the student in a few days to ask how things are going. Professors and advisors often underestimate how deeply students value such attention. You may find it useful to refer students to a college dean, a professor in a different department, staff in the Wellness Center, Financial Aid, CGSE, or the Center for Advising, Internships, and Lifelong Career Development.
Finally, it’s important to remember that students may be facing serious personal issues related to their health, family, financial circumstances, or the conduct system. They may share their concerns at the outset, but they may not. Faculty and staff sometimes worry about intruding, but students tend to welcome sincere, straightforward questions. If they don’t want to talk with you about a particular issue, they won’t, but they may not feel comfortable broaching difficult topics unless you make it obvious that you’re ready to listen.
“We should check in proactively about how things are going, maybe in Weeks 1, 3, 5, and 7, in FY Seminar. Once I hear about a student's interest in leaving, they've already put things in motion.”
--Tom Arnold, Biology
“Students considering whether to transfer sometimes assume that their college dean is motivated by a desire to dissuade them, and they approach such meetings nervously. I always make it clear that I assume they are approaching their potential decision thoughtfully and note that they are responsible for their educational choices.
“If students are open I usually ask what they are looking for in their undergraduate experience, review ways they have sought out these experiences at Dickinson and ask about the possibilities offered at the institution they are considering. I always emphasize that certain transition challenges are common so students must distinguish between a temporary concern and long-term institutional fit. I also advise them to be as informed as possible about the transfer process since application deadlines, accessible funding resources and opportunities to build social cohorts are common challenges when students decide to transfer to a new institution.”
--Vincent Stephens, College Dean
“I typically tell students that it’s very common for them to not like Dickinson at some point during their first year. I use my own experiences as an example – I was convinced that my undergraduate and graduate institutions/programs weren’t for me, to the point where I bought an LSAT prep book during my first year in my political science doctoral program because I was planning to leave and go to law school. Thankfully, I didn’t end up doing that! I found my niche in both cases and encourage students to give it at least a year before making any decisions. I also try to understand the root of why they’re considering leaving Dickinson and emphasize the fact that Dickinson wants students to be successful here and that there are many resources on campus to help facilitate that. If it’s something like the student wants the experience of a larger campus, I point out that student-faculty relationships will change substantially at a larger school, particularly those focused first on faculty research. I also mention that it’s possible to get a larger school experience if they go on to do post-graduate study. In my case, I attended Gettysburg as an undergraduate and Penn State for graduate school and feel that I got the best of both worlds. I also try to get a handle on what is working for the student at Dickinson – what do they like – to get a sense of where the gaps in their experiences are.”
--Katie Marchetti, Political Science
“I usually frame the conversation by validating their choice—without encouraging them to transfer! I'll often start with sharing my disappointment that they want to leave. But I also make sure that I let them know that in the end I just want them to be happy wherever they might be heading. I offer to get them any help they need in the process since even if Dickinson isn't for them. I want them to see us as supportive.
“By laying that groundwork, I can then ask them why they want to leave, and I get honest answers: I've made it clear that I want them here but that it's not my intention to stonewall them. I frame my question something like, ‘So why do you want to leave? Please be completely honest because it could also help us help other students in the future.’
“Then I get into the conversation about what they've done to improve this situation or alter those circumstances. My strategy relieves their nerves because many of the students who are telling they are transferring are nervous about doing so.”
--Josh Eisenberg, College Dean
“I had two cases of students who considered withdrawing last fall. The conversations were different in both cases, and they differ from a previous one I had several years ago. In short, the conversation ends up my delving into their reasons for transferring, checking that they've given Dickinson a fair shot in each regard, and I usually tell them to take more time to consider. Still, one ended up leaving after last year, and one didn't.”
--Robert Pound, Music
“I try to build some rapport with the student, normalize their feelings and experiences, and then I ask lots of questions. Why did you pick Dickinson? How is it meeting your expectations and how is it not meeting your expectations? How are you being challenged/not being challenged here? This allows for some conversation about the importance of challenge/being uncomfortable at times.
“I also ask about their living situation – What is it like living with your roommate? For first-year students– Did you select your roommate or did Dickinson match you? Have you made connections in your residence hall/living on campus?
“In addition, I bring up the concept of ‘the grass is greener.’ I will sometimes talk about my own thoughts of transferring at two specific times in my undergraduate experience (ultimately deciding both times to stay). I tend to end by saying it is OK to transfer – while we hope that the students we admit will have a great experience here, we recognize that it does not always turn out to be a good match.
--Angie Harris, College Dean
“When students say that they want to major in something that is not offered at Dickinson, I tell them that at a liberal arts college a student's major is not a decisive factor in deciding what careers they are going to pursue afterwards, and I tell them that doing meaningful internships is way more important. I also strongly encourage them to make an appointment with the career center to discuss their options.
“When students say that they are having a hard time finding friends or that Carlisle is too small, I encourage them to study abroad, possibly for the whole academic year. When students study abroad, they are with a smaller group of people so it's easier to bond. Plus, they can make new friends. Also, most of our study abroad programs are in larger cities than Carlisle, so they would get the "big city" experience that they want. And by the time the come back to Carlisle, they will be seniors and will be focusing on their next phase, so their senior year will fly by.
“When students say that they want to be at a big university, I underline that at Dickinson they get a top-notch education. All their classes here are taught by faculty members who have completed their degrees and have years of experience, while in research universities a lot of classes are taught by PhD students, who are learning how to become professors. And I also underline that the kind of relationship that students have with faculty at Dickinson is hard to find at larger universities. When students need us, we are always there for them. And if they need a letter of recommendation, it's easier for us to write it because we know them so well.”
--Luca Lanzilotta, Italian
“I ask them what brought them to Dickinson, sometimes we even pull up their application essay and look at it together. We talk through the fact that there is no perfect college, I ask them about the pros and cons of staying and leaving. That usually brings up many things that can be helpful in terms of conversational directions.
“I often then talk through the logistics of the application process and transfer student experience (drawing on my admissions work and work with transfer students here), making sure they fully understand the reality of credit transfers, social transition, etc. There have even been situations where discussions have turned to financial and I’ve directed students to use the net price calculator on another school’s website to estimate what it would really, truly look like at school X.
“After talking through all these things, including the various ways the student could investigate whether what they’re disappointed with at Dickinson might be resolved, I ask them what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, then encourage them to think through things and follow back up, if they wish. I explain the importance of making the most of the time they’re at the college (academically, socially, etc), which helps them in two ways: first it makes their application elsewhere stronger, but perhaps most importantly, it often gives them the chance to see whether just a shift in perspective and a willingness to go all in will impact their experience positively at Dickinson. “
--Tara Fischer, College Dean
Useful Questions to Ask Your Students
Meeting them where they are
- When did you first start thinking about withdrawing/transferring?
When are these feelings the strongest? Are there times when you don’t have these feelings?
- What has changed between the time when you selected Dickinson and now?
Social engagement & connection
- Where have you made your most significant social connections at Dickinson?
- How have you made friends in the past?
- With whom on campus do you feel connected? Why?
- May I introduce you to a student/professor/staff member who shares your interest in ______________?
Cocurricular engagement & connection
- What were your favorite extra-/co-curricular activities in High School? Are you pursuing them here?
- What new things have you tried since arriving to Dickinson?
- Are there areas you thought you might become involved with but haven’t yet tried? Why?
- Are there areas in which you could use more guidance?
Academic engagement & connection
- What courses have you taken thus far that excite you the most? Why?
- What courses have been the most difficult for you?
- Have you talked with anyone else about your academic major? Career interests?
- Are there people in your life who support your interest in transferring?
- Are there other important issues we haven’t talked about yet? Sometimes students face changes related to family circumstances…or they experience financial hardship…or they encounter other significant challenges. I want you to know that you can tell me about anything that’s on your mind.
Wrapping up/Looking ahead
- If I could resolve the biggest reason you’ve identified for wanting to transfer tomorrow would you still want to leave? Why?
- With whom have you discussed your plans so far? Would you be comfortable if I reached out to [the Registrar, your college dean, coach, and/or your advisor(s)] to let them know that we’ve had this conversation?
To transfer, students need to withdraw from Dickinson. The Registrar has charge of the withdrawal process, and students should consult with the Registrar’s staff about the necessary paperwork and procedures.
Advisors and deans like to know when their students are considering transfer! Please check with students about their desire for privacy and apprise advisors and deans when it’s appropriate.
Occasionally, students begin the transfer process very early in their careers at Dickinson. First-semester students may thus approach you for letters of recommendation before you have had an opportunity to get to know them or to evaluate their work. Although faculty always have the right to decline to write letters of recommendation, it’s possible that no other professors are in a position to write meaningfully on these students’ behalf, either. One option is to a) explain clearly what you will and won’t be able to say, and b) ask whether the student would still like you to write their letter. If every professor were simply to decline recommending first-semester students, they might mistakenly perceive that Dickinson had made a concerted effort to “block” their transfer. A direct and honest exchange can help avoid this misunderstanding.