A Practical Approach to Advising “Swirlers”

Spencer C. Bennett
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: August 26, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161521

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, swirlers, students, attend, multiple institutions, multiple colleges, transfer students

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class on student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

More than 59 percent of undergraduates have attended at least two institutions and more than 20 percent have attended three or more (Thurmond, Taylor, Foster, & Williams, 2008). Between 1970 and 1990 the number of schools the average undergraduate attended escalated from one to three. Given the increased number of students attending multiple institutions and the fact that those who attend multiple institutions have substantially lower degree-completion rates, educators should pay more attention to effectively serving students' unique needs (Goldrick-Rab, 2007). Students attending multiple institutions follow many different routes. Some of the more common routes are community/technical colleges to multiple four-year institutions, as well as from a four-year school to a community college and back to a four-year institution. Students who attend multiple institutions have been coined “swirlers.” As one might imagine, swirlers are students who move from institution to institution in pursuit of bachelor's degrees. The purpose of this article is to describe the unique challenges that swirler students face and provide specific recommendations that academic advisers can follow to assist swirler students.

Why Do Swirlers Swirl?

Students transfer to multiple institutions for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons involves financial problems. In an interview conducted at the University of South Carolina, a swirler stated that she transferred from a four-year institution to a two-year institution because, “I realized I could take classes at the technical college for much, much less” (R. Leask, personal communication, March 24, 2009). The financial burden is relevant to all students in higher education but is often more taxing on a swirler. This is due to the fact that while incurring debt at multiple institutions, they also have to learn entirely new financial aid systems over and over again. Academic advisers armed with this knowledge can refer students to the financial aid office, educate themselves on the basic financial aid options available, and/or work with the financial aid office to create specific workshops for incoming transfer students on topics such as scholarships and loans that can lessen the stress of the financial burdens they have acquired.

Student swirl is also increasingly accommodated by statewide articulation agreements and distance learning courses (Borden, 2004). Now more than ever, students can be more mobile in terms of their educational pursuits and can “shop around” for their best options. However, statewide articulation agreements usually do not extend beyond state borders, making out-of-state transfer students more likely to lose academic credits earned elsewhere. This loss of academic credit usually translates to more time required before degree completion. Additional course work often means additional loans, which exerts further pressure on swirler students.

Institutions can take steps to address academic credit issues. For example, institutions may improve the likelihood of course credits transferring to other institutions by requiring departments to clearly state the learning outcomes of their courses, list the topics covered, and provide detailed course descriptions online. This will help academic advisers and registrars to properly advise students about the transferability of courses taken elsewhere. Also, if these course descriptions are available online, swirler students can come to their initial advising appointments more prepared and aware of the course load they may have to schedule in their first semester.

How Advisers Can Assist Swirler Students

Because swirlers do not attend one institution very long before moving on to the next, they never get a chance to become engaged in an institution's culture. They are in a continuous state of acclimation and transition. These disruptions cause stress for the student on multiple levels, including both academic and emotional. Swirlers, like many transfer students, often experience drops in their grade-point averages during their first semester at the new institution. This is known as “transfer shock,” which Hill describes as the dip in transfer students' grades during the first semester after transferring to a four-year institution (as cited in Ishitani, 2008, p. 404). An academic adviser can play a key role in reducing the severity of this “transfer shock” by having multiple intentional conversations early in a swirler's first semester on campus. The adviser can help students identify areas of strength and weakness and refer students to appropriate campus resources, including tutoring, academic planning, study skills workshops, and counseling services. Advisers can also educate students about the “transfer shock“ phenomenon and encourage them to overcome it by getting help early in the semester.

Academic advisers can also help swirler students become involved on campus. Swirlers tend to focus more on classes than becoming involved in extracurricular activities. Yet, student involvement plays a key role in the success of any student on a college campus. Astin (1999) defines student involvement as “the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (p. 518). The more students are involved on campus, the more likely they are to continue. By encouraging students to become involved in campus activities, advisers can help enhance the overall college experience for these students and increase the likelihood of retention. One resource that advisers might find useful is the set of engagement tools developed by O'Keefe (2009). These tools can be used during advising sessions to identify ways that students might want to become involved on campus.


Swirlers are a unique subculture of the transfer student population that demands the attention of academic advisers and other members of the higher education community. Becoming aware of the significant financial, academic, and social struggles faced by swirlers is just the first step in beginning to assist this student population. Implementing the suggested approaches above can help these swirler students become more successful and are small but important steps toward retaining them.


Astin, A. (1999). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 518–519.

Borden, V. (2004, March/April). Accommodating student swirl. Change, 36(2), 10–17.

Goldrick-Rab, S. (2007). The context of “choice“ in college pathways [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.wiscape.wisc.edu/publications/wp008/documents/WP008

Ishitani, T. T. (2008). How do transfers survive after “transfer shock”? A longitudinal study of transfer student departure at a four-year institution. Research in Higher Education, 49(5) 403–419.

O'Keefe, S. (2009, January 7). Creating a tool to help your advisees become engaged on your campus. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.psu.edu/dus/mentor/090107so.htm

Thurmond, K., Taylor, T., Foster, M., & Williams, J. (2008, March 25). Swirling to a degree: The ups and downs of college transfer [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Webinars/documents/W13Handout_002.pdf

About the Author(s)

Spencer C. Bennett is a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina. He is also a graduate assistant for the university's University 101 program. He can be reached at bennets3@mailbox.sc.edu.