College students need to consider not just how to pay for college, but also which school best fits their needs and--if necessary--whether transfering to another school should be considered. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, nearly one in four college graduates in 2013 received their degree or certificate from a school different than the one in which they first enrolled.
For transfer students, online colleges are a top choice. U.S. News and World Report found the five schools with the most transfer students in 2012 included one fully online college and two universities well known for their online degree programs.
Students may transfer for a number of reasons, for example:
- Moving from a two-year to four-year institution
- Changing jobs or career paths
- Relocating to a different community or state
- Re-enrolling after a significant length of time
Regardless of the reason, students should know how to successfully transfer credits between schools, whether it be to (or from) online colleges or campus-based institutions.
Which College Credits Will Transfer?
"With the money spent for the coursework we engage in, we expect that coursework to be recognized," says Darin Hobbs, registrar at Western Governors University.
However, the reality is not all credits will transfer. Most schools operate under a system of semester hours in which they may transfer course credits only if a similar class exists in their own course catalog. However, schools operating under a competency model, such as WGU, award competency units that reflect an individual's mastery of a particular subject. These schools may be more likely to award credit for work experience and professional certifications.
While each school determines its own policy for credit transfers, and there are no hard and fast rules, the following chart provides some general guidelines on whether credits will transfer.
Type of Credit
Generally Accepted at Most Colleges
Generally Not Accepted for Transfer
May Be Accepted at Competency Based Schools
Lower division classes in major
Lower division electives
Upper division classes
Classes with grades lower than a C
Non-degree postsecondary credits (i.e. diploma or certificate programs)
Competency based schools may require an assessment to transfer credit from professional certifications and work experience. In addition, credit may only apply if the individual's experience is related to their expected course of study.
3 Steps to Transferring Credit Hours
Hobbs says transferring credits from one institution to another is typically a three-step process.
- Student requests official transcript: The first step is for students to request their official transcript from their previous school. The request often must be made in writing, and there may be a processing fee. The transcript is then sent directly from one school to the other.
- College reviews the transcript: "Once transcripts are received, schools review the transcript to determine if [credit] transfers and does it fit an established course or general elective," explains Hobbs. Courses that have no equivalent class or that do not apply to a student's expected course of study may not transfer.
- Student informed of decision: Once the review process is complete, the student is informed of the school's decision on transfer credits.
Testing or other assessments may be used by schools offering credit for professional experience or in cases in which there is no directly comparable class at the school.
While the credit transfer process is relatively straightforward, students may run into two common obstacles, both of which can be overcome with advance planning:
The first issue that students may run into is that credits from schools that are not accredited may not be accepted for transfer. Before enrolling in any school, students should confirm the institution is accredited to ensure credits will transfer later if needed.
"Regional accreditation is the gold standard," says Hobbs, explaining regional accrediting bodies attest to the rigor of a school's academic program.
In some cases, particularly in industry-specific colleges and professional schools, regional accreditation is unnecessary. Instead, these institutions may have their own national accrediting body. However, Hobbs cautions students should be sure any accrediting body is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Beyond accreditation, the other obstacle to transferring credits is the lack of uniformity among college courses.
"The main challenge when it comes to transferring credit is the lack of a common vernacular nationwide," says Hobbs.
In other words, schools all have their own courses and descriptions, and it can sometimes be difficult to determine which classes are comparable between schools.
Hobbs notes some states are undertaking initiatives to create common course numbering which would simplify the transfer process. However, those initiatives are at the state level and may not apply to online colleges which cross state boundaries.
Students planning a future transfer should inquire into whether an articulation agreement exists between the two schools they are considering. These agreements stipulate how credits transfer and can help ensure courses are accepted. Other schools have published transfer equivalency charts that show which courses may be accepted and how they transfer.
Planning Makes for Smooth Transfers
The bottom line, Hobbs says, is students should do their research at the start of their education, rather than waiting until they are ready to transfer.
"Students should be deliberate in their course selections," he advises. "[They] should identify the schools and programs they want to transfer into in advance."
Failure to make smart classes choices could mean credits won't transfer from one institution to another and missing out on those credit hours means lost time and lost tuition dollars. Whether you are planning to transfer to an online college or study online and then transfer to an on-campus program, knowing the process in advance and researching the policies at your schools of choice can mean you start your new school with the maximum number of credits possible.
1. College Completions Hold Steady in 2013 as Pathways to Completion Become More Diverse, National Student Clearinghouse, December 16, 2013: http://www.studentclearinghouse.org/about/media_center/press_releases/files/release_2013-12-16.pdf2. Competency-Based Education, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning: http://www.cael.org/What-We-Do/Competency-Based-Education (Accessed June 30, 2014)
3. Darin Hobbs, Registrar for Western Governors University, Interviewed by author on June 26, 2014
4. David Moltz, Who Decides on Transfer Credit? Inside Higher Ed, April 21, 2011: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/04/21/cuny_divided_over_potential_changes_to_general_education_requirements_and_transfer_rules#sthash.hEb9jKxO.nnb50hYV.dpbs5. Most Transfer Students, U.S. News and World Report, http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/most-transfers?src=stats (Accessed June 30, 2014)