Avoiding the Transfer Process in College Athletics

Why are transfer rates so high among college athletes? The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) constantly collects data to keep up with transfer rate trends. The current transfer rates are the highest they have ever been. Here are a few facts:


  • 38% of all undergraduates, and 22% of NCAA student athletes, transferred into the institution they graduated from. (Gallup 2020)

  • The college transfer rates have increased each of the last 3 years. (NCAA – 2018)
  • 13% of Division-I student athletes transferred from another school. (NCAA – 2018)

  • For four-year institutions, men’s soccer, beach volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s tennis have the most transfers. (NCAA – 2018)

  • In Division II, the sports with the highest amount of transfers are men’s basketball, baseball, women’s basketball, men’s soccer and football.  (NCAA – 2018)
  • According to a 2018 study by the National Student Clearinghouse, it is estimated that 39% of undergraduates who initially enroll (defined as showing up for class on day one of college starting) at a four-year college transfer at least once.

Why are student athletes having a tough time finding the right college?

According to a 2018 Find My Team study, the reason so many college athletes transfer is because they did not find the right college fit. Finding the right fit means finding a suitable college that matches the wants, needs and values of the student athlete.

When you look at colleges, you need to take into account the entire experience.

Girl with dark shirt and pink scarf on airplane

Sometimes Transferring is Necessary

Sometimes transferring colleges is necessary. Sometimes, circumstances out of your control force you to have to transfer. Some of the reasons college athletes have transferred, which were deemed necessary, were moving closer to a family member who was ill or needed more assistance, financial hardship, medical reasons or simply choosing a different major.

If you do need to transfer, all hope is not lost. You will find another college. However, if you can find the right fit the first time, you won’t have to deal with the disruption and the hassle of the transfer process.

Tips to Avoid Having to Transfer

There are many ways to go about searching for a college, but to find the right fit and to take ownership in that process takes work. Here are some tips to help you:

Avoid Predetermining the Level or Division 

Many athletes and parents try to predetermine early in the athletes’ career which level of play or division the child will play in college. This could lead to all kinds of mistakes, including missing opportunities to learn more about colleges that would be a great match for your academic, athletic and cultural interests.

Meet Jackie.

Jackie was determined to attend a university at the highest level for volleyball. Jackie pursued only Division I colleges from the largest athletic conferences in the country. Her talent level was suited to play Division I, but she was only offered a scholarship from one large conference. The other offers were from smaller Division I colleges.

Jackie took the offer from the highest level, a Division I opportunity she had hoped for.

When she attended the first practice of the summer, she noticed that these players were all very good and in much better shape than she was. She stuck with it for a couple of months but felt like she did not belong at this level. When she approached the coach about it, he said she “will have to sit a couple of years and earn her stripes.” Jackie had never dreamed she would not have playing time her first year. She never thought to ask the coaches about how she would fit into their program and what their expectations would be.

She left after the first summer session and went to a college where she could find earlier playing time.

To avoid Jackie’s story, take the time to keep an open mind about which division or level you will choose.

Empty basketball arena with orange seats and lights on

Avoid Choosing a College Based Solely on Athletics

Another common mistake athletes make is to focus only on the athletic program, figuring everything else will take care of itself.

Meet Alison. 

Alison knew at a very early age that she would be attending the college where her grandfather played football. She had only been there once to see a basketball game. Alison knew the coaches well and had talked to them a lot during the recruiting process.

The athletic facilities were amazing. The basketball arena was spectacular and held 10,000 fans. The locker rooms were just revamped and were pristine. Alison was invited to visit the locker room before the game, where she had the opportunity to meet members of the team and listen to the coach give a pregame talk before the opening tip. She felt good about the visit.

When she returned home, she told her parents this is where she wanted to go. She called the college and committed to the coach. She then finished her high school senior year.

When she arrived on the college campus, she immediately discovered that, culturally, she was not going to fit in well. The campus was located in a small college town, and she was used to living in the city. The shopping mall was tiny, and the restaurants were sparse.

When she showed up at her first class, there were only 15 students in the class. She was used to classes with 45 students at her high school and thought she would be in much larger classes in college. Her roommate was from a very small town, so she knew right away that they would have little in common besides sports.

When she showed up at practice, the sports scene was fun and exciting. She knew she could excel in this program. Alison knew early on that she would see a lot of playing time and possibly even start as a freshman for this basketball program. She didn’t really fit in well with the players, who she felt wanted to party too much instead of concentrate on basketball.

She worked hard her first semester of college, but, when finals arrived in December, she returned home and told her parents that she couldn’t do it anymore. She had fun playing basketball and even had a starting spot on the team, but she did not fit in well with the team or the campus. She left during the Christmas break.

There is more to college than the sports program. Make sure you look at everything that is important to you, even the little things.

Girl in front of colorful brick wall with coffee and phone wearing a red pullover

Go at Your Own Speed

Many college programs will give you deadlines that require you to decide to take or leave an offer before you are ready to do so. This could lead to bad decisions.

Meet Hannah. 

Hannah was receiving some early interest from colleges. She and her parents were excited about the first offer she received. It was a Division II soccer opportunity and a partial scholarship. The coaches told her they would hold the offer for two weeks before offering it to someone else. Hannah had to decide quickly.

Hannah liked what she had seen up until that point but was also interested in some Division I colleges. Since the Division I colleges had not offered yet, Hannah and her family thought they should take the Division II offer. Hannah decided to commit to the Division II college.

In November of her senior year, Hannah signed with the Division II college. Midway into her senior year, a Division I college called and offered her a full scholarship. She was already signed on at the Division II college and had committed there.

She ended up attending the Division II college but transferred after one semester. Hannah had wished she would have been more patient, taken more time and gone at her own speed.

It’s hard to know ahead of time if you will develop skills later in your high school career or if you should take what is in front of you. The best option is to make “fit” the priority.

Three stacks of one hundred dollar bills

Avoid Only Following the Money

Yes, college is expensive, and it is hard to imagine taking care of the cost on your own. On the flip side, it is hard to imagine having college paid for and being miserable.

Meet Anita. 

Anita came from a single-parent family. Her mom and dad divorced when she was a freshman in high school. Her mom worked two jobs and had two other children in the family to worry about.

Anita wanted to get a scholarship so her mom would not have to worry about paying for college.

Anita was a track/cross country runner and was being touted by many Division III and NAIA colleges. The Division III colleges could not offer Anita athletic aid, but, because of her academic record, they could offer her an academic scholarship. It was not a full scholarship, but it did cover books and tuition.

A Division I offer came a little later, and Anita took it as it was the first full scholarship offer that she received. The college was not her favorite choice, but she knew that she needed the money.

The Division I college was further from home, and the team was not very good, but Anita felt as though she had no choice.

Anita arrived at college and began to train with the team. She knew she would not be able to run right away for either track or cross country. Her skill level needed work. She trained as hard as she could, nut, by the end of her sophomore year in college, she still was not running in competitions.

Anita was unhappy academically as well. She had to change her major to attend this college in the first place.

She became more miserable with each passing month and ended up leaving after that year.

Though the money helps, it is not what brings satisfaction in a collegiate career. There are other ways to help fund college besides a full-ride scholarship. Take the path of finding fit. 

Final Thoughts

Instead of looking at colleges in terms of levels, money opportunities, best offers or best athletic programs, look at them as a means to get you to your future life. Look for the best fit in all areas of your life.

That choice will be your best opportunity to thrive and be successful in college.


1. Gallup Study 2020 

2. NCAA Research on Transfers

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