Switching Schools: A Guide to Transferring Your College Credits
Beth McClure was a typical college student. She lived in a dorm, attended classes on campus, and went to parties with her friends on the weekends. But when her mom had a stroke midway through her junior year, Beth’s priorities changed.
With the medical bills piling up, Beth’s mom could no longer afford to send her to traditional college—not without putting Beth into a staggering amount of debt. And Beth wanted to move back home so she could help take care of her mom and her younger sister. But she didn’t want to give up on her education, either.
“I chose an online university so I could finish my online social services degree and become a social worker, like I’d planned,” Beth says. “I thought it was a good option—much more affordable, and I could study from home.”
But transferring her prior credits to her new school wasn’t as easy as she’d thought. The online university Beth chose offered a social work degree—but the required classes didn’t match up with those she’d taken at her traditional university. That meant many of her credits wouldn’t transfer, and she had to sign up for more classes than she’d expected to earn her degree.
It all added up to a lot of lost credits—and wasted money.
Beth’s story isn’t unusual for students who transfer. Whether you’re making a move between traditional and online schools or between two traditional colleges, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to transfer all of your credits to your new school.
One of the reasons why so many students are unprepared for the difficulty is that no school is the same. Policies vary widely by school, and it can be tough to navigate the maze of rules and regulations between your old school and your new one.
However, there are some common problems. In your attempt to transfer your credits, you may run into trouble for one or more of these reasons.
Differing credit hours
Many schools will not accept credits for classes that run fewer hours than their own classes do. For example, if you took three-credit-hour classes at your old school, your new school may not accept them because their classes are four credit-hours.
If your transfer school offers classes with different credit-hours than your old school did, be prepared for a struggle.
Low grades in some classes
If you earned below a certain grade in a class, some schools may not accept transfer credits for that class. Some schools won’t accept grades lower than a D, while some only accept C’s and above. This is especially true for classes in the subject you intend to major in.
The new school doesn’t offer your old classes
If there’s no equivalent class in your new school’s roster, it may not accept credits for some of your old classes.
Beth ran into this problem when she tried to transfer from a traditional to an online school. In some cases, online programs may offer a degree similar to the one you’ve been pursuing at a traditional college, but the required course load is not equivalent.
It’s not just a problem between online and traditional universities. Degree programs can vary widely among traditional schools as well. This is one of the most common reasons why students run into trouble transferring.
The remedial class dilemma
Remedial classes—especially in math—are growing
increasingly common in colleges across the country. But most schools won’t accept transfer credits for them. If your new college decides you still need remedial instruction in a certain subject, you may have to take the class again.
Your old college isn’t accredited
This is especially common with students who are seeking to transfer online credits to a traditional school. However, there are plenty of traditional colleges operating without accreditation, as well.
Accreditation is performed by a third-party nonprofit organization, which examines a school and determines whether it meets the nonprofit’s standards for accreditation. If it does, a certificate of accreditation is awarded.
In the United States, there is no single “official” organization that offers accreditation to schools. There are many established accreditation organizations. But there are also many unrecognized accreditation mills.
The problem is that if your old school’s certificate is from one of these unrecognized institutions, you were probably led to believe it is fully accredited. But other schools will see it as unaccredited—and your credits won’t transfer.
The online degree program dilemma
There are many legitimate, rigorous online degree programs available today that prepare you for work just as well as a traditional university.
However, the online college industry is still young. While many traditional colleges accept online credits and even offer their own online courses, some haven’t quite caught up with the times. A few traditional colleges aren’t familiar with online programs, and some associate all online colleges with diploma mills.
Although the online degree landscape is very different today, a few traditional colleges may still be suspicious—and they may not accept any online credits, even from respected schools.
Your old classes are too specific—or not specific enough
Some schools won’t accept credit for classes that aren’t directly related to the major you intend to pursue there. Some schools, however, only accept general credits—you’ll have to take your advanced course load over again.
The transfer process is rarely problem-free. But there are a few things you can do to make the process go more smoothly.
This is the single most important part of having a relatively smooth transfer experience. The more you know ahead of time, the fewer hurdles you’ll have to face in the transfer process.
If you know before entering college that you will want to transfer in the future, you’re in an enviable position. You can choose your first school with care; make sure it’s accredited with the right agency; and plan your course load with an eye for what will transfer and what won’t.
Some students who plan to transfer start out at a two-year program. Many two-year schools have relationships with four-year institutions that use them as “feeder” schools.
These four-year institutions often send their counselors to their feeder schools, work out special agreements for transfer credits, and work hard to accommodate students who transfer from those schools. If your school is a feeder for a four-year institution, your transfer process may be easier than most.
Talk with a transfer counselor at your current school
However, not all of us are lucky enough to know years in advance that we’ll need to transfer. For Beth, the situation changed unexpectedly—and the added stress of her mom’s illness made it difficult for her to plan methodically.
If you find yourself suddenly contemplating a transfer, the first thing you should do is talk to a transfer counselor at your school.
Some schools give credit evaluations to transfer students. Do this as quickly as possible. It will tell you which credits are likely to be transferable, especially to another school in a feeder relationship with yours. It’ll also let you know what other classes you should take before transferring, if you have time.
Talk to an admissions counselor at your transfer school
Call up the admissions department at the school you want to transfer to.
Questions you should ask include the following:
- How do I apply to transfer to your school?
- When is the deadline for transfer applications?
- What happens if I miss the deadline?
- Where can I send my transfer application?
- What documents do I need to include with my application?
- When is the best time for me to transfer?
- How can I figure out which of my credits will transfer?
- Is there a minimum amount of credits I should earn before I transfer?
- What classes do you recommend I take before transferring?
- Are there some types of credits your school will not accept?
- Do you accept transfer credits from my current school?
- What are the basic transfer requirements?
Know the best time to transfer
This depends on the school you’re considering, as well as the program you’re transferring to. Some colleges give preference to transfer applicants who have earned a certain number of transferable credits, and some only accept applications during certain times of the year. Make sure you check with the admissions department at your new school.
Make good grades
Your transfer will be easier if your grades are high. Transferring to a new college is not unlike applying as a freshman: you have to present yourself as a good candidate for the new school. In many cases, there’s a better chance your credits will transfer if your grades are higher. Some colleges will not accept transfer credits for classes you’ve earned low grades in.
Apply to more than one transfer school
Give yourself some choice. Talk to many different admissions officers. Get a sense of how many of your credits will transfer to each school. Use this information when you choose which new schools to apply to.
Ask about life experience credits
Some colleges offer credit for “life experience”—this could include jobs you’ve held, licenses you’ve earned, classes you’ve taken, and other life experience that could exempt you from certain course requirements. Some require you to put together a portfolio documenting your prior life experience.
Dispute when you can
Most colleges have a documented procedure for credit transfer disputes. If you feel you’re entitled to more transfer credits than you got, check in your new school’s catalogue for the dispute policy. You’ll often have to fill out a dispute form within a certain amount of time, so look into this as quickly as possible.
“Looking back, I wish I had planned a little more carefully,” Beth says. “I didn’t get a credit evaluation at my old school, and I didn’t look into a lot of online schools before making the transfer. If I had, I probably could have gotten a better deal.”
Changing schools can be a hassle. But it doesn’t have to be a financial tragedy. Follow this advice, and you’ll have a better chance of transferring your credits—and finding the school that offers you the most transfer credits possible.
Council for Higher Education Accreditation: Official Website
Council for Higher Education Accreditation: Database of Recognized Accreditation Institutions
Council for Higher Education Accreditation: Degree Mills: An Old Problem and a New Threat
Council for Higher Education Accreditation: Combating Site Based and Degree Based Diploma Mills [pdf]
MNTransfer.com: FAQs for Transfer Specialists: Evaluation of D Grades
The Princeton Review: Should You Stay or Should You Go? The Pros & Cons of Transferring Schools
DailyNews.com: Virtual Classes a Challenge for Schools
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