Transferring Colleges: Buyer Beware for Athletes

We were recently advising a high school student-athlete regarding the athletic recruiting process and he indicated that he decided to begin his college career at a Division III school then transfer to the Division I school of his dreams with the intention to play his sport at that level. This is not the first time I have heard this concept from a student athlete and, as I mentioned to him, it is important to consider the rules and ramifications which impact athletes who transfer at the college level – it’s not as smooth a transition as it may appear on the surface.

Typically, if you’re going up in a roman numeral in the sports of baseball, basketball, men’s ice hockey and football (i.e. – from NCAA Division II to DI), you must sit out a year unless you obtain an exception or waiver from the NCAA. Note that these waivers are about to become more difficult to obtain as the NCAA tightens up its exceptions policies.  On the other hand, if you’re going down a roman numeral (Division I to Division II, DII to DIII) you don’t have to sit out. You also need to be in good academic standing at your original school and be making progress toward a degree to be eligible upon a transfer. All this said, you should confirm your prospective transfer status with your original institution, the NCAA, the institution to which you are transferring and their conference before committing.

More importantly, you need to decide whether sitting out a year is worth it to you. You may view it as an opportunity to develop as you are typically permitted to practice with the team while sitting out, assuming that you are academically eligible. Thus, you can hone your skills, become accustomed to the level of play and become stronger and more athletic.

Keep in mind, however, that there are alternative scenarios that do not necessitate sitting out a year. These include attending a prep school or junior college (though there are transfer rules that do apply to JUCO transfers). Each of these options can offer strong competition and an opportunity to develop your game and mature as an athlete, assuming that you will earn significant playing time. With the prep school option, you need to recognize that you will be running in place academically by not achieving college credits during this period.

Also, if you’re not an immediate qualifier academically through the NCAA Eligibility Center to play as a freshman, junior college is also a viable option to compete immediately while pursuing college credits and positioning yourself to be re-recruited, typically after spending two years at the junior college. Junior college sports are very competitive, academically viable and can enable you to stay closer to home and be in a more affordable situation.

The junior college and prep school route can enable you to play right away without sitting out a year if you were eligible through the NCAA eligibility center as a senior in high school or after your time in prep school. In this situation, you can transfer after one year at a Junior College and play right away assuming your junior college information and academic performance is all in order. Most importantly, the prep and JUCO options offer the opportunity to go through the athletic recruiting process again with the prospects of being more ideally positioned assuming that you have developed and matured as an athlete and student.

You should evaluate the practical and personal issues related to a prospective transfer, however. One of the considerations related to transferring and sitting out is that it not only disrupts your athletic experience in terms of missing a year of game competition but it also can create upheaval in your college experience.  For example, in the scenario noted above related to the athlete starting at a DIII school with the intention of transferring to DI, he would have begun achieving a comfort zone at his original school –  social, academically, logistically and athletically. To then move to another school for just athletic purposes, it may not in reality be ideal ultimately especially if he was in a situation where he became comfortable at his initial school on most key levels. Plus, you may have an opportunity to play more minutes sooner and over the course of your career at that initial school, particularly if it’s at a lower level than the one to which you are transferring – playing time often is correlated with overall happiness for student athletes.  Another key consideration relates to your academic progress in that all of your courses may not transfer and you may not be able to duplicate your major at your new school.  You will also be interrupting the development of personal relationships among peers and teammates who could become lifelong friends and leaving an environment that’s more compatible with you socially. Regardless, you’ll need to start over on all of these levels at your new school.

We’ve often discussed on our podcast the importance of having realistic sights during the process.  Step back and view the long-term ramifications of a transfer- it’s good to pursue a dream, but it’s better to pursue a dream realistically with your eyes wide open – the grass is not always greener elsewhere and sometime you best situation is the one your currently experiencing and can maximize.

*Note – Become familiar with all of the current rules and ramifications before settling on a transfer commitment. Also, use the resources of our RecruitU app and related Recruiting Sports Network services to find your ideal school and program as early as possible in the recruiting process so a transfer won’t be a consideration.

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