Want to Hire an Innovative College Graduate? Choose a Transfer Student

Opinion | Higher Education

Want to Hire an Innovative College Graduate? Choose a Transfer Student

By Matthew J. Mayhew, Benjamin S. Selznick, Eric McChesney, Christa Winkler and Musbah Shaheen     Jun 2, 2021

Want to Hire an Innovative College Graduate? Choose a Transfer Student

Among the many questions COVID-19 has raised about college-going, one remains particularly daunting across industry sectors—who to hire?

If anything, COVID has taught us that nothing can be taken for granted and there are no sure-things with regard to the college-to-career pipeline. Will liberal arts majors succeed in business—and for that matter, will business majors succeed? Do people with the highest grade point averages make the best employees?

Rather than use these traditional success indicators to inform hiring practices, employers may need to think creatively about what achievement looks like in college. Our contention is that the most nimble students may be most likely to succeed in the workplace. Perhaps the students who have demonstrated that they can thrive in multiple environments during college are those most apt to succeed in jobs after college, especially in today’s turbulent times.

To this end, we give you the transfer student.

Who Are Transfer Students?

Transfer students often take different pathways to earn their degrees. “Reverse transfers” are those who switch from a four-year to a two-year institution. “Lateral transfers” are those who move between four-year institutions. “Summer swirlers” attend a different institution during the summer, and “upward transfers” enroll first at a two-year college, then at a four-year institution.

Surprisingly, upward transfers actually increased 2.6 percent during the first year of COVID-19, suggesting that students still see value in transferring to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree even amidst the pandemic.

This trend might be a good thing for the post-pandemic workforce. Our research found that transfer students are more likely to grow as innovators during their college years than students who start and graduate from the same institution.

Who Are Innovators?

Our research team recently completed a study on college and its effects on student capacities to innovate, including their motivation, proactivity, self-concept, networking, teamwork, persuasiveness, risk tolerance, creativity, and the ability to take an idea and roll it to execution. Using a well-validated instrument, we longitudinally assessed 572 students from nine universities across the U.S. and Canada over four years of undergraduate studies, from 2015 to 2019.

We found that transfer students were 77.5 percent more likely to develop the aforementioned innovation capacities when compared to non-transfer students. In fact, transfer students started college with higher innovation capacities and continued to grow across the college experience at an increasing rate compared to non-transfers. This was true for transfer students regardless of their race, gender, grade point average, international student status, and college major.

Transfer Student Innovation Is Underappreciated

Although research shows that at least a third of post-secondary students transfer between colleges and universities at least once, transfer students have often described a stigma that follows them to their new campuses. Some people may make assumptions about transfer student abilities or reasons why transferring occurred. For instance, a common misconception is that transfers couldn’t handle the rigor of their first institution, or that a transfer pathway is somehow less prestigious and rigorous as attending a single institution.

Employers might make similar faulty assumptions, drawing parallels between changing institutions and changing career paths—thinking that candidates who have switched career directions in the past or who have jumped from place to place are more risky investments. In many ways they may be right to do so, with some reports indicating that the cost of hiring a new employee is often 50 to 200 percent of the salary of the former employee.

As a result, businesses might be tempted to play it safe and not hire college graduates who have jumped from one college to another. They might decide transfer students are simply too risky.

This would be a mistake.

Transferring colleges isn’t a sign of lack of focus, commitment or self-knowledge. In fact, after an initial adjustment period, transfer students graduate at the same rates as non-transfers, and tend to perform the same or better academically. And now we know they may be more nimble thinkers and doers as well.

What We Still Don't Know

It’s not yet clear why transfer students are more likely to develop their innovation capacities. Perhaps they crave new experiences, and one educational environment is not enough to stimulate their curiosity. Or, it may be that transfer students know what it is like to fail and recover, two attributes frequently linked to outside-the-box thinkers and entrepreneurs. A third speculation is that transfer students may be those who embrace the “upside of quitting”—rather than succumb to sunk cost fallacy, transfers have proactively worked to improve their educational experiences.

What we know for sure is that transfer graduates have more experiences succeeding in multiple environments. They are people who know how to navigate new and often challenging situations—very important skills given an economy that’s flashing warning signs and lean times on the horizon.

The good news for businesses, of course, is that there are many transfer students hitting the labor market. So the next time you see multiple colleges on an applicant’s resume, you might just want to give them a second look.

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