Maybe you’re currently in community college, with the goal of transferring to a four-year university for your bachelor’s degree. Or maybe you’re already enrolled in a four-year institution, but have found it’s not a good fit, and you’re seeking other options. Or maybe you “stopped out” of college for a couple of years, relocated in the meantime, and now want to complete your education at a new school.
As a prospective transfer student, you’ve got a big decision to make – namely, which school to choose. And in many ways, you’ll go through much the same process as those who enter directly from high school. You, just like they, will need to identify which schools offer your major…. and provide a good financial package to make attendance affordable….and have a decent academic reputation….and are located in the area of the country you want…and are either the small, medium, or large size you like … with the campus or online setting you prefer.
And, oh yeah….a school you can get into.
But as a transfer student, there’s one big consideration that means absolutely nothing to incoming freshmen – and is absolutely critical to you.
You’ll need to make sure that most, or ideally all, of your credits transfer. Do so successfully, and you’ll save more than time. And effort. And money.
You’ll increase the odds that you’ll earn your bachelor’s degree at all.
Before we get into the issue of transferring credits successfully and how that affects graduation rates, it may comfort you to know that you won’t be alone in your quest. Far from it. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than a third of undergraduates transfer at least once, and 11% transfer twice. And, believe it or not, we do indeed live in a country of “movers,” as about one in 50 students (2.3%) transfer three times or more.
So you have plenty of company.
These students fall into several different categories. The NCES reports that, of all the students who transfer, the greatest number (37% of the total) transfer from two-year to four-year schools. Still, a significant portion transfer between four-year institutions (22%) and between two-year institutions (21%), and almost one in five (17%) “reverse transfer” from a four-year to a two-year school.
Regardless of the situation, all these students have the same basic challenge, and that is to find (and get into) an appropriate school that will credit them for the bulk of their previous coursework. In fact, research has shown that the likelihood of completing one’s bachelor’s degree (especially within the same time frame as “native” students – those who began at the school as freshmen) depends largely on getting this one piece of the “transfer puzzle” right.
Naturally, the more credits you can transfer in, the fewer courses you’ll have to take. Of course that would translate to a savings of both time and money. (Not exactly rocket science here.) What’s not so obvious, though, is that the more of your credits your transfer school accepts, the more likely you are to earn your bachelor’s degree – in some cases, much more likely.
The difference credit transfer makes is remarkable. According to “The Community College Route to the Bachelor’s Degree,” a study by David Monaghan and Paul Attewell of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, community college students who transfer in all or most of the credits they’ve earned (90% or more of their credits) are 2.5 times more likely to graduate than those who transfer in less than 50%.
But the study also revealed that only 58% of students transfer in with all or most of their credits. Even more disheartening, though, is that 14% of community college students lose almost all previously earned credits (90% or more) and are therefore starting out as freshmen – again! – regardless of how much time they’ve already been in college. (The remaining 28% of students lose between 10% and 89% of their credits.)
That is why, Monaghan and Attewell explain, transfer students as a group graduate at lower rates than native students (a fact long established by research). It is not that transfer students are academically inferior. Nor do they have less access to financial aid. The cold, hard truth is that these students are at a big disadvantage because they lose so many credits when they transfer.
So what’s the trouble? Why do so many students lose so many credits in the transfer process, thereby making the ultimate goal of earning a bachelor’s degree that much more difficult?
Restrictive credit transfer policies bear some of the blame. Beyond that, though, the situation is just plain complicated. There are no consistent rules that dictate which courses will be credited by the “receiver” institutions, leading to all sorts of missed opportunities and less-than-ideal choices by students. Two significant exceptions are transfers involving articulation agreements and “core curricula,” both of which are described in the two-year to four-year transfer section.
Transferring credits can be complicated and confusing. But it’s worth the time and effort it takes to do it right.
So, then, why the confusion? Let us count the ways:
And the list goes on.
As a result, the number of “to-do” items associated with a transfer can add up. Students need to conduct extensive research, talk with both their originating and receiver schools’ transfer or admissions offices (ideally), review state transfer websites when appropriate, learn the specifics of relevant articulation agreements when available, study the information available from the websites of their targeted receiver schools, and, ultimately, apply to their targeted receiver schools before they can receive the official word on which of their credits will transfer.
It takes planning. And work. And determination. But done right, you’ll make your education more affordable and your degree more attainable. It’s worth the effort.
You’ve already seen how common it is for community college students to transfer to four-year schools. The NCES study mentioned earlier showed that more students follow that route than any other group – they make up nearly 37% of all transfers.
It’s no surprise that so many community college students continue on to four-year schools, as the benefits of completing one’s degree are well established: greater civic engagement, greater lifetime earnings, and lower unemployment, among other things. But what benefit did these students get by enrolling in community college in the first place, rather than starting off in a traditional college or university?
It won’t come as a shocker that the price tag of a community college is a lot smaller than that of a four-year institution. And while it’s true that some universities might offer you enough in the way of financial aid that the costs of the two paths get closer together, in most cases you (or Mom and Dad, thank you very much!) can save a lot of money if you spend your first two undergraduate years in community college.
But do you realize just how large those savings can be?
According to the College Board, the in-state tuition and fees for a public two-year institution averaged $3,347 a year compared to almost three times as much – $9,139 – for a four-year public institution. That alone is substantial. But wait. The potential savings are really astounding when you consider the tuition charged by out-of state public colleges, which average $22,958 a year, and the $31,231 (gulp) charged by private four-year schools. (Don’t forget to factor in the cost of room and board as well. With the cost of on-campus living at around $10,000 a year, you can save a lot of money by spending the first couple years of college living at home.)
*These figures, available from Trends in College Pricing by the College Board, are published charges for the 2014-2015 school and do not include reductions from financial aid and scholarship. Neither do these figures include charges for room and board, which are also available in the same report.
Saving money is always a big plus, but at the same time, you sure wouldn’t want to sacrifice your chances of ultimate success by going to a two-year college first. And you won’t. Transferees from community colleges can – and do – succeed in completing their degree, and in large numbers. An interesting study entitled “The Community College Pipeline” from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) revealed that 45% of all students who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2010 – 2011 were previously enrolled in a two-year college at some point.
And depending on which state you’re in, you might just find that your community college experience makes you part of the majority. Delving into the NSC’s data further, we learn that, for the 2010-2011 academic year (the year of the study), fully 78% of all students who received bachelor’s degrees in Texas were once community college students, as were 71% of those in Wyoming, 65% of those in both California and Kansas, and 62% of those in Oregon. All told, there were 13 states where more than half the students who earned bachelor’s degrees had previously been enrolled in a two-year school. So, it looks like a popular path to follow.
One of the best indications that a transfer student from a community college will ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree at the receiver school is if he or she earned an A.A. degree before transferring. An NSC “Snapshot Report” shows that students who transfer in with the two-year credential earn bachelor’s degrees at about the same rate (72%) as the students who started a four-year program as freshmen. On the other hand, the graduation rate among community college students who make the jump before completing their two-year degree drops to 56%.
Don’t forget, though, that the graduation rate for many of those transferring in from community college trails that of native students (see graph above), largely because so many transfer students lose credits when they move to their new schools. You might recall from earlier in this article, for example, that 14% of community college students lose almost all their previously earned credits, and only 58% of students manage to hold on to at least 90% of their credits.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Given the multitude of state-sponsored websites, transfer agreements between transfer and receiver schools, and the availability of advisors to help you through the process, virtually every community college student should be able to make his or her move without any substantial loss of credits.
All it takes is a fair amount of planning.
The news gets better yet. In certain situations, you could actually increase your chances of getting into a top-tier or other competitive institution as a transfer student as compared to applying directly from high school.
Let’s say that you’re a New York high school student who has his or her heart set on the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell. (Yes… you’ve had visions of attending an “Ivy” since eighth grade.) The problem is that although you’re an excellent student when measured in terms of grades, you’ve never done particularly well on standardized exams. Call it test anxiety… call it whatever… the discouraging fact is that your SAT (or ACT) scores did not come close to reflecting your academic ability. And so, sadly, Cornell turned you down.
The encouraging news, though, is that Cornell has the highest transfer acceptance rate in the Ivy League. So you head off to your local community college, achieve a G.P.A. of 3.7 (while carefully meeting the terms of the articulation agreement* with Cornell), and apply for transfer as a junior. Because of your demonstrated success in your two-year program, you’ve not only become an attractive candidate to Cornell, but your test score carries much less weight. (In fact, Cornell will accept transfer students who never even took the SAT, but students who have scores must present them.)
*Articulation agreements are explained in the next section.
It’s almost like you’ve been dealt a perfect hand of cards. Play them right, and you can transfer just about every single credit you earn in community college to any one of dozens of four-year institutions.
Articulation agreements can make the process much, much easier for you.
We’re talking about “articulation agreements” – arrangements that have already been worked out between participating community colleges and four-year schools to allow for a smooth transition of students from the former to the latter. At its core, an articulation agreement takes the risk of lost credits out of the equation, by specifying – or “articulating” – which classes completed at the two-year school will be credited toward a bachelor’s degree program at the participating four-year schools (assuming grade minimums are met), along with outlining prerequisites and other requirements.
And in this game, everyone wins. The student… the community colleges… and the four-year schools.
Be aware, though, that not all articulation agreements apply to all majors. In many situations, the agreement between your community college and a receiver school pertains only to specific majors. (You’ll be able to search articulation agreements by major using tools and resources we describe below.) No worries, though… you’re likely to find many schools that have transfer agreements in place for your program.
As you look over the transfer section of your community college or state website, there’s another possibility you may come across – something that takes a transfer agreement one step further. We speak of “guaranteed admissions” policies, an arrangement between two-year and four-year schools that promises admission if specific criteria are met.
Don’t miss out. Make sure you ask your transfer advisor about any opportunities that may exist in your state.
The above is only a summary of guaranteed admissions policies for the states highlighted. Please review the associated websites for more specific requirements.
The fact that you have so many ways to explore articulation agreements – and other transfer options – can actually be a double edged sword. On one hand, you’ve got a wealth of data, search tools, and guidelines available to help, but on the other, some of the content from these sources overlaps, and it’s tough to know where to begin.
Let’s start with the broad view.
If you’re the type of student who wants to “know it all,” then start your explorations with a website that gives you a bird’s eye view of everything your home state has to offer. These sites, which are usually a collaboration between participating institutions and your state’s government, include articulation agreements that exist between all participating community colleges and four-year schools (within the state’s program). In addition, you’ll be able to read up on various transfer pathways, search databases to help you zoom in on receiver schools that make your short list, and learn about statewide policies designed to make credit transfer more efficient.
Which statewide policies are these, you ask? There is tremendous variation, of course, but one that many states have defined is a “core curriculum” – a group of general education classes given at community colleges that participating four-year colleges will accept for credit. This arrangement is becoming increasingly popular. Among the states that either have a core curriculum or are developing one are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and many others. (An excellent website that tells you which states have core curricula, and other transfer-related programs, is the “50-State Analysis” available online at the Education Commission of the States website.
The “core curriculum” policy is especially important to those of you majoring in “undecided.” (If that’s you, welcome to the club. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 80% of college students change majors at least once.) You can take the core curriculum, knowing that participating four-year schools have agreed to accept it, and you’ll get credit for all your efforts – before you’ve even chosen a major.
In any event, your state-affiliated website is a great place to get the “30,000-foot view” of the many community colleges and four-year schools that have agreed to an articulation agreement. Let’s explore a few of these state websites to get an idea of what to expect:
We picked the three above as examples, but we could go on forever – well, on to 47 more, actually – to give you the full picture. Instead, please go to our state pages to find links to each state’s transfer website. [NOTE: we’re in the process of adding transfer credit links to all of these state pages – they’ll be finished soon]
But maybe you consider the state website “information overload” as a first step. Instead, you’d rather just zero in on the articulation agreements available with the community college you’re currently attending. In that situation, your best starting point is with your own school’s website.
That’ll work, too.
Just like your state’s website, the transfer portion of community college websites is likely to be a treasure trove of information. In many cases, you’ll see a list not only of traditional four-year campus-based transfer options, but opportunities for online degree completion, guaranteed admissions, a calendar of transfer workshops, a recommended timeline, and general information on the overall process. You’ll almost certainly have links to the participating four-year schools as well as any relevant state-related sites. Plus, as an added bonus, you’ll often learn of academic transfer scholarships to help with the cost.
Let’s pick a couple of examples:
If you’re looking for academic transfer scholarship options that might not be listed on your school’s website, you can also go to Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for community college students, or to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for several other opportunities.
There’s certainly a lot of material to digest, and one wrong step can be costly. (And let’s face it, with the abundance of information coming at you from all directions, a misstep could indeed be possible – and very understandable.) That’s why, in addition to your own research, you’ll want to meet with your advisor, as well, to make certain you haven’t overlooked or misunderstood a critical element. The sooner you do this, the better. Ideally, you’re reading this just as you’re starting community college – or no later than a semester or so in – and you can begin meeting transfer requirements right off the bat.
If you already have a good idea of which school you want to transfer to (or you’ve narrowed it down to two or three possibilities), you could work backwards, and start with that institution’s website. (You’ll be able to link there from your community college website, anyway, but you could save a step and go straight there.) In fact, your best bet – just to make sure you’ve covered all the bases – is to review your receiver school’s website at an early stage regardless, as there may be additional information that will prove useful – or critical – to you. Plus, remember – no matter where you start in your research, you’re going to end up needing to review your receiver school’s website very closely anyway, as you eventually must investigate application policies, submission deadlines, and other details.
Aha. The plot thickens.
Until now, we’ve been talking about transfers made under an articulation agreement (or a guaranteed admission policy), but if you’ve set your transfer sights on a college or university that has not “partnered” with your community college (especially if you want to go out of state), you’ll have to depend on different or additional resources for your information.
You’ve clearly got more work than your peers who are following an articulated path. In fact, your task is similar in many ways to that of a student transferring from one four-year school to another. (You’ll still want to talk with your transfer advisor at your community college to help you with the journey, but more will fall on your shoulders.) Fortunately, the four-year schools have all sorts of guidelines, policies, and tools to help you with a smooth transfer, and state websites will have useful information and databases for you, as well.
You know from reading the statistics in the opening section that transferring to a new school can be a complicated undertaking – and one that sometimes results in a substantial loss of credits. More than one in ten community college students, for example, lose at least 90% of their credits in the process. And that’s after considering the ready-made transfer agreements they have available to avoid that very scenario. And unless there was a mid-program change of mind or a later decision, they already knew upon enrolling in a two-year college that they would need to transfer to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Your situation will likely be more of a challenge, but at least it’s a challenge many people share. According to the study from the National Center for Education Statistics, about one in four transfer students are those moving from one four-year institution to another.
Transferring to a new school can solve some kinds of problems… but not all.
Let’s face it, though. A transfer is something you probably didn’t foresee when you enrolled in your current school. Rather, it’s more likely that during the heady day or two of freshmen orientation, when you had that knot in your stomach that comes from a combination of nervousness and excitement, you figured you’d be there for the duration.
But now you feel that your choice of colleges was wrong, and you want to fix the situation with a transfer. And while a new school can indeed solve many kinds of issues, make sure the move is for all the right reasons. Disliking your roommate is not a good reason. Or being homesick. Or even finding the work too hard. (The transition from high school to college can be difficult, and it’s important to give yourself enough time to adjust.) That said, there are some very legitimate reasons to consider a transfer:
Other than that last little joke, the five reasons listed above, among others, are all valid reasons for exploring a transfer. Now you just have to do it right. Pick the correct school, and do what you can to make sure your credits transfer.
Unlike community college students, who benefit from numerous articulation agreements, and therefore a ready-made list of lucky (!) contenders for their transfer applications, you’ll have to do a bit more footwork. (Well… fingerwork, really. We’re talking Internet searches and whatnot.) In a nutshell, though, there are four basic steps you’ll want to complete before you apply to your new school:
You’ll need to figure out which colleges match your needs in terms of major, location, the degree of selectivity in admissions, the graduation rate, size (small, medium, or large), environment (rural, suburban, or urban), and affordability. (You won’t be able to determine the true “net cost” after financial aid until after you apply, but there are tools that will help you estimate it.) You also might want to consider such factors as diversity, or activities, or even how much of a party atmosphere the school has.
This topic could easily be another article in itself, but we tried to keep it focused and steer you to some excellent resources that can help you narrow your selection.
This particular step isn’t as critical, but it’s fast and easy to complete, so we suggest you take a look at transfer acceptance rates. And while you won’t necessarily want to cross off a school that accepts very few transfer students – particularly if you believe it is an ideal match for you otherwise – it’s still a good idea to keep these numbers in mind. Do you have the University of Chicago or Stanford on your “wish list,” for example? That’s fine – and good luck! – but remember… the acceptance rate for each of these schools is around 2%. On the other hand, the University of Illinois (Urbana) and UC/Davis accept about half of their transfer applicants.
If you don’t have any specific colleges in mind, but simply want a quick way to see which schools have high acceptance rates as a way of focusing your search, you might find it useful to take a broad view. Consider the two following resources:
Then again, it’s possible that you already know where you want to transfer and just want to get an idea as to how transfer applicants fared at that institution. In that case, head back to the College Board’s Big Future site, as it’s an efficient way to check out the transfer status of several schools in a matter of minutes. Under College Search, name your school, go to the “transfer” portion, and you’ll see all sorts of interesting data pop up – including the total number of transfer applicants, the number admitted, and the number enrolled. Go to CollegeBoard.com to check out the transfer stats for your target schools.
If your search turned up a match so perfect that it’s almost too good to be true, look closer. It might just be. There’s no sense jumping for joy, for example, if the “match made in heaven” requires a minimum of 24 completed credits for transfer, and you’ve only finished your first 18. Or if the minimum GPA for a particular school is a 3.0, and you’re a C+ student. Or if you have to have completed a sociology course for admission to your transfer program, and you haven’t. Make sure you’re aware of the basic transfer admission requirements before you spend time researching credit evaluations.
You’ve found the perfect school. It’s the right size, in the right state, with the major you want. The degree of selectivity is a great match, it has an encouraging transfer acceptance rate, and your research tells you that it is likely to be affordable. What could possibly go wrong?
News flash. You find out – too late – that you didn’t take one specific course required for admission. Not a pleasant surprise, especially if it’s late in the game.
That’s why it’s important to learn about transfer requirements early in the process. And while many schools have relatively easy-to-meet requirements – perhaps a GPA of 2.0, minimal credits of 12, and no specific course requirements – others have more specific prerequisites. Take a look at a couple of examples, and you’ll see what we mean:
It’s all part of the selection process – both yours and theirs! – and it’s something to be aware of at an early stage, before you start the next step (transferring credits). While some general sites give a good overview, your best resource at this point will be the websites of the particular schools you’re considering.
If at all possible, start working on your transfer plans more than a full semester in advance. That way, if the school where you want to transfer requires, say, a microbiology course for admission to your program, you’ll have time to take the prerequisite in advance of your application.
There’s often a correlation between a school’s degree of transfer-friendliness and its credit acceptance policies (for obvious reasons), although it can be a “chicken and the egg” type of thing. (Are students attracted to a specific institution because its credit acceptance policies are more liberal, or has the school instituted a more liberal credit policy specifically to attract transfers?) Either way, once you’ve got your “short list” of target schools down, you’ll need to figure of which one(s) will accept most of your credits.
It will only be after you apply (and are accepted) to a school that you will learn officially which courses transfer. Still, you have plenty of resources and tools to help you figure out beforehand how many credits are likely to be accepted.
Once you’ve narrowed the field and determined that you’ll meet the minimum admission requirements, you can focus on the critical issue of transferring your credits. You’ve can approach this from many angles – one of which should absolutely be your target school’s website – and we’re suggesting a few possibilities to get you started. But remember, ultimately, you’ll rely on your school’s official credit evaluation once you’ve been accepted. Below are the sources you can get the best information from.
Check out CollegeTransfer.net. Can we say “pay dirt”?! This site provides some amazing guidance for transfer students coming from all categories – including community college, four-year, international, and military. In addition to school search options, it has a “course-to-course equivalency guide” that lets you determine which courses you’ve taken at your current college will transfer to your target schools, and if your AP and CLEP credits may be accepted, as well. You can also register with the site and create a “student passport” that lets you compile your course history, compare transferability among institutions, and notify schools of your interest, all free-of-charge.
Just as the state websites described in the community college transfer section are useful to two-year students, these sites are invaluable to students moving from one four-year institution to another. In fact, the information on these sites can be so broad-reaching that material on one site can provide all sorts of help to students who don’t even live – or plan to transfer – to that state. Still, most of the material will be pertinent to that state’s students specifically and provide some “course equivalency” tools to help you figure out which of your classes will be credited by the school(s) you’re considering. Let’s take a look:
Like, duh. At some point, you’re going to need to go to the schools’ websites too. (In fact, we hope you will have already done some sleuthing around these websites to determine the basic admissions requirements, as recommended earlier). Nowhere else will you find the breadth and depth of information on your particular target institution, including details regarding degree programs, admission requirements, submission guidelines, application deadlines, transfer advisory services – and credit evaluation tools.
Naturally, you’ll be going to the schools’ sites that are relevant to you, but take a quick look at the type of credit-related information and resources you’re likely to find:
Finally, virtually all four-year schools have advisors or offices to help students arriving “mid-stream.” Although you’ll be in contact with them once you’ve been accepted, you can certainly call or email before that point if you need clarification of the school’s course equivalency tool(s) or any other aspect of the admissions process.
We’ve covered a great deal of ground, providing you with a wide range of resources to help you transfer successfully to a school that meets your needs and will accept most (or even all) of your credits. So as you begin this next step in your education, keep in mind that you’ve got plenty of company… and plenty of places to turn for guidance and advice.
All the best of success to you as you continue your educational journey!