Factors That Influence Collegiate Student-Athletes to Transfer, Consider Transferring, or Not Transfer

Authors: Jared K. Richards, Undergraduate Student, Shelley L. Holden, Ed.D., Steven F. Pugh, Ph.D.

Corresponding Author:
Steven F. Pugh
Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Sport
University of South Alabama, 36688

Steven Pugh is a professor and program leader for teacher education programs in health and physical education, Shelley Holden, is an associate professor in health and physical education and Jared Richards is an undergraduate, exercise science major in the B.S. program at the University of South Alabama.

Factors That Influence Collegiate Student-Athletes to Transfer, Consider Transferring, or Not Transfer

Student-athletes deal with many stressors every day of their collegiate career and each athlete responds to these stressors in different ways. Some thrive, while others seek new environments. The purpose of this study was to assess the reasons college student-athletes reported for transferring, seriously considered transferring, or not transferring from their original university. Also, the study examined transfer status and perceived stress and/or internal locus of control scores. Little research investigating factors related to athlete transfer decisions has been done. Participants were collegiate student athletes aged 17-23. Results indicated that 56% of athletes that transferred or seriously considered transferring listed coaching style as a reason, while 88% of athletes that have not transferred listed academics as a reason for remaining in their current setting. Data indicated that one factor does not typically convince a student-athlete to transfer, rather, it is a complex interaction of many factors.

Keywords: Athlete attrition, Sport, Coaching

Athletes choose a university with the intention of playing for that university’s team for their entire collegiate careers. However, 40% of all college student athletes that receive scholarship money either transfer, leave school completely, or do not graduate within six years (4). The reasons vary, but include choosing the wrong school socially or academically, choosing the wrong coach or playing style, losing interest in the sport, getting injured, or having poor academic performance (4). Also, athletes may switch schools seeking fresh starts and more playing time (7). Coaches should be aware of the potential reasons athletes transfer or consider transferring so they might attempt to address these issues and retain their athletes.

Athletes may also leave due to the lack of on campus support. The athlete could feel that their academic advisors, athletic trainers, or tutors, do not care about them personally. Smaller universities may have a more personal feel than larger universities. Frequent one-on-one situations with support staff can lead to several benefits for athlete retention, including a higher grade point average (GPA) (3). GPA is the most essential qualification for an athlete because it determines if the athlete is eligible to participate in intercollegiate competition. One of the nine themes in the literature that affect student retention is grades/academic performance (1). Enrolling students with high academic achievements have the highest rates of retention (1). Therefore, recruiting athletes with higher academic achievements from high school could potentially reduce the number of athletes that transfer due to academic issues.

Transfer athletes sometimes suffer negatively from their enrollment decision. That is, the athlete must become adjusted to life on a new campus, become acquainted with new faculty and staff, and readjust to new professors and teaching styles. Changes like these can affect an athlete’s academic and athletic performance. Non-transfer student athletes tend to have higher GPAs than non-athletes, while transfer student-athletes have grades similar to non-athletes (5). The implication is that transferring can negatively impact a student-athlete’s academic performance. It would seem to benefit all if athletes, in most cases, remained at the institution where they first enrolled.

There is research on individual variables that have the potential to affect student-athletes motivation to transfer. However, research has not been conducted that compiled quantifiable data indicating athletes’ identifying variables that motivated them personally to transfer, consider transferring, or not transfer institutions. In addition to variables previously examined, this study included athlete locus of control and perceived stress as factors in decisions to transfer. The current study was an effort to determine which of the selected variables were reported most frequently as reasons for transferring. It was hypothesized that coaching elements, such as coaching style or staff, and academics would be the most frequently reported factors that would influence an athlete to transfer. Finally, the purpose of this study was to determine the factors from this sample that would have the greatest impact on athletes’ decisions to transfer to another institution.

Participants included 28 (35%) male and 52 (65%) female athletes from varsity athletic programs at a Division I university in the southeastern United States. Table 1 displays the number of athletes and their sports team affiliation participating in the study. Table 2 shows the academic year of the athletes. Of the athletes surveyed, 43 were Caucasian, 27 were African American, two were Latin American, one was Asian, and seven identified they were of mixed races. Seventeen athletes had a GPA from 2.00-2.99, 26 from 3.00-3.49, and 37 above a 3.50 on a 4.0 scale. Sixty-eight of the athletes were on athletic scholarships while 24 athletes were on academic scholarships. The top five majors reported by participants were physical education with a concentration in exercise science (12), interdisciplinary studies (10), undecided (7), pre-physical therapy (5), and biomedical sciences (5). Seventeen athletes reported that the university of current attendance was not the first four year university that they had attended.

Decision To Transfer - Table 1

Decision To Transfer - Table 2

This study used three instruments for data collection. Athletes filled out a self-report survey that included demographic questions. This survey included 13 factors that the athlete could mark as well as a write in option for each section. These 13 factors plus the write in option were in the sections for transferring, thinking about transferring, and not transferring. These factors were school’s academics, school’s social scene, coaching style, change in coaching staff, playing time, loss of interest in sport, academic scholarship, athletic scholarship, physical injury, time commitment, on campus support, overall college experience, academic performance, and a write in option. The second instrument used was the Perceived Stress Scale (2). Items on this survey are designed to measure the degree to which situations in one’s life are considered stressful. This survey consisted of 10 questions that were ranked from 0 to 4 dealing with the athlete’s feelings and thoughts during the last month.

Finally, the Sport Locus of Control Scale (SIES) by (8) and adapted by Rushall (6) was administered. The survey was used to assess the relative value of internal and external sources of reinforcement perceived by an athlete (8). The SIES consisted of 31 items with two alternatives for each questions. Each question had an external control factor alternative, with a maximal external control score of 23 possible. The athlete’s external control score is used to calculate the internal control score by the following formula, Internal Control Score = (23 – External Control Score).

Head coaches for the university athletic teams were contacted to gain permission to survey athletes from their respective teams. At the start of each survey session, the researcher explained the purpose and the details of the survey to the athletes and the coaches. After obtaining consent from both the athletes and coaches, as well as Institutional Review Board Approval (IRB) the athletes completed the three instruments.

Of the 80 athletes surveyed, 19 (23.8%) reported being transfer students, 13 (16.3%) reported considering transferring, and 48 (60%) reported not considering transferring to another institution. Data analysis combined the athletes that did or considered transferring to find the factors that motivated athletes to leave their university. The top five reported factors for transferring and considering transferring from most to least frequently selected were coaching style (18), playing time (8), staff change (7), lack of on campus support (6), and school’s social scene, loss of interest, and overall college experience (5). The top 5 factors for not transferring were school’s academics (42), school’s social scene (35), availability of athletic scholarship (34), coaching style (33), and overall college experience (27). The factors written in that athlete’s indicated as motivating them to transfer included previously attending a 2 year college (4), problems with teammates (2), wanting to play in the United States (2), previously not on a sports team (2), wanting a new challenge (1), and the coaches back home (1). One athlete reported the presence of family where the college was located geographically as a reason not to transfer.

The overall perceived stress mean value was 17.0750±7.2893. That value changed when considering solely athletes that transferred, considered transferring, or not considered transferring. The transfer perceived stress value was 19.5, the considered transferring value was 19.8, and the not considered transferring value was 15.4 all of which are above the 12.1 for males and 13.7 for females considered mean scores for the test. The overall SIES internal locus of control mean score was 14.7250±3.6595. Similar to perceived stress, the SIES mean score changed when considering the three groups. The SIES mean score for the athletes that have transferred was 13.4737, for the athletes considering transferring was 13.7, and for the athletes not considering transferring was 15.5. As previously noted, a score of 23 is possible for external control whereas the internal score is obtained by using the formula, Internal Control Score = (23 – External Control Score).

This study examined the reasons that collegiate student-athletes transferred, thought about transferring, or did not transfer by using a self-report survey. Also, the study used perceived stress and internal locus of control score to see if transfer decision were influenced by the athletes’ perceived stress or locus of control. It was expected that the coaching aspects such as conflicts with coaching style and poor academic performance would be the most significant factors that influenced athletes to transfer.

The results suggest that factors outside of the athlete’s control are the most likely to convince the athlete to transfer. The top three factors, coaching style, playing time, and a change in coaching staff, are typically things that athletes perceive as beyond their control. This correlates with transfer athletes having the higher internal locus of control scores. Athletes with a high internal locus of control attribute their success to internal factors and might be more prone to transfer if they determined they were not being treated well. The higher perceived stress values might be a result of transferring rather than a reason for transferring as the transfer athletes had higher perceived stress values than those not considering transferring. Stress can negatively impact a student-athlete’s performance on and off the field/court. It could be expected that athlete’s with higher perceived stress would be more likely to transfer schools. Athletes that transferred and considered transferring had similar perceived stress scores. This could indicate that transferring institutions does not reduce perceived stress values, which means that athletes that transfer may not improve their situation as much as they would like. The lower perceived stress scores for athletes that have not considered transfer might indicate that these athletes are happy with their decision and are less likely to transfer in the future.

The factors that are attributed to athletes not transferring are academics, the school’s social scene, presence of athletic scholarship, and coaching style. These athletes scored lower on SIES internal locus of control score. It could be that athletes who are not considering transfer feel that they have less control over their academic or athletic career. Therefore, they would likely attribute their academic and athletic performance to factors outside their control and be more likely to remain in their current setting.

There were several limitations in the current study. First, the study was based on self-report data which may be influenced by recent events or participants might be unclear of how they feel at the time. Second, there were a total of 30 incomplete surveys and each was eliminated from further statistical analysis. Elimination of the incomplete surveys reduced the sample size and may have had an impact the results.

If athletes who transferred or considered transfer have higher perceived stress scores, athletic programs might provide stress management training to the athletes. While it is unclear if the higher stress levels is a result of transferring or conditions leading to transfer. Stress management training might have a positive effect on retention. If the athletes’ stress induced decisions are reduced the coach might have more time to develop athletes and create a more positive outcome for all. The responsibility for stress management training might fall on the individual coach or athletic director.

If coaches are aware of the factors that are pushing their athletes to transfer, then they would have the option to correct these circumstances or behaviors. Some issues like playing time may not be correctable and related to the athlete’s ability. However, if the problems are with factors such as the school’s social scene or academics, then the coaches may be able to make resources available to the athlete. This would lead to athlete retention as well.

Future research should focus on obtaining additional transfer decision data and interventions to improve retention. The effects of perceived stress and locus of control might also merit additional examination. As more information is gained coaches might have better insight as to why athletes transfer.


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