Ultimate Guide: Applying to Online Colleges for Transfer and Returning Students

Feb 27, 2019 | By Maryalene LaPonsie
Article Sources


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Not every college applicant is fresh out of high school. Some people started college right away and then discovered the time wasn't right for them to pursue higher education. Others went to a community college first and are ready to move on to a bachelor's degree program. Still others may have started a four-year college or university and need to transfer to a school that's a better fit for them.

Do you fall into any of these groups? If so, this guide was created with you in mind.

We want to specifically help transfer and returning students understand the online college application process. Whether you're going back to college after years away or are currently in school and need to know how to transfer colleges, you'll find the details here. We'll cover how to transfer credits, reciprocity guarantees and how to apply to be readmitted.

Here are some numbers to back your decision up: Going back to school or transferring to a school that will help you earn a degree is a smart move. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports students with a four-year degree had significantly higher weekly median earnings than those with less education. Just check out these numbers:

  • Bachelor's Degree: $1,156
  • Associate Degree: $819
  • Some College, No Degree: $756
  • High School Diploma: $692

That translates into college graduates earning $1 million more than high school graduates over the course of a lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

So let's get started!

How to Pick a College

Adults going back to college or transferring colleges are often looking for a different educational experience than those who have just graduated from high school. You may have a steady job or a family, both of which require your time and attention.

That's why online colleges are so popular for adult learners. However, it would be a mistake to simply enroll at the first school you find that has an online degree program in a field that sounds interesting. Just like any other college search, selecting the right online school means doing some fact-finding before you ever begin submitting applications.

Here are four steps to help make the process of picking a college simpler:

Step 1: Write down your final objective

Obviously you want a degree, but what about after that? Do you want to work in a specific occupation? Are you hoping to move on to a master's degree program?

One popular way to answer these questions is to imagine what you'd like to be doing 5, 10 and 15 years from this moment. How you envision the future may give you a clearer idea of what education path you should be following to reach that end point.

Too many college students start a program with little idea of where it will take them. Remember: you're about to spend a significant amount of time and energy on your education. Don't waste it by pursuing the wrong degree program.

If you need help making your decision, OnlineColleges.com offers an extensive collection of program guides you can review. These cover a variety of degree programs - from business to education, IT to health care, and graphic design to criminal justice. Each page includes information about the specific program, plus a ranked list of schools as well as their related careers. Use the "Search by Program" option at the top of OnlineColleges.com to explore a range of topics.

Step 2: Evaluate your past experience

If you know where you'd like to be heading, it might be time to look back and consider your previous college experience.

  • What classes did you enjoy and which were a struggle?
  • What would you have done differently?
  • Did a full-time class schedule work for you?
  • How many credits do you have to transfer?

These answers will help you frame how best to approach college going forward. For example, if you found going to school full-time to be overwhelming, then you'll want to look for programs with a part-time option.

Step 3: Research your online college options

Online schools offer flexible learning options that are perfect for adults returning to college. For example they can be a great fit for someone who needs to juggle school and work, or even school, work, and family responsibilities. However, not all schools operate the same way. To pick the right college, you need to decide which of the following are right for you:

  • Hybrid vs. Fully Online: Some schools let you earn a degree without ever stepping foot on campus. Others offer hybrid programs that combine online learning with some on-campus requirements.
  • Self-Paced vs. Accelerated: Self-paced programs can be great for busy adults who have limited time in their schedule to study. But if you have few obligations, an accelerated schedule can help you to earn degree in a shorter period of time.
  • Asynchronous vs. Synchronous: Most undergraduate online schools use an asynchronous learning model. That means students can log in whenever they want during the day to review course material. Synchronous programs require everyone be online at specific times of the day to take part in classroom chats or other activities.
  • Online-Only School vs. Traditional School with Online Program: Some colleges and universities operate only online; they don't have a campus you can visit. Other online programs are run by traditional schools that have a campus.

Step 4: Narrow down your school list

If you've completed all three steps above, you should have a good idea of exactly what you want out of your college experience. At that point, it's just a question of locating the schools that fit your needs and preferences.

While narrowing your list of top contenders, don't forget to look for the following:

  • Accreditation
  • Cost
  • Location, if the school has a campus
  • Credit transfer policy

You can use the OnlineColleges.com Top Colleges tool to review and sort through your choices. You can also review the rankings available on OnlineColleges.com's program-specific pages.

Step 5: Apply for financial aid

Knowing how to transfer colleges is only one step in continuing your higher education. You also need to be able to pay for your degree program. To help you find the financial aid you need, OnlineColleges.com has put together the following primary resources:

Visit each guide to learn more about how to find and apply for financial aid as well as for details on state-specific resources. You'll also find state-specific resources listed on each OnlineColleges.com state page.

School websites are another valuable source of information. Look for the financial aid section for your chosen school, where you will often find tuition calculators and information on any financing or scholarship programs available specifically to students of that school.

How to Apply to be Readmitted to a College After a Withdrawal

Adults returning to college may find they are most comfortable reenrolling in the school they previously attended. In addition, applying for readmission may be an easier process than applying to a different school for the first time. Each school has its own process for readmissions, and the manner in which you apply could vary depending on how long you've been out of school and why you left.

  • Quick Re-entry: Some schools have quick re-entry programs for students who have only been out of school for one or two semesters. These programs may let eligible students restart classes without filling out a new application form.
  • Regular Readmission: For those who left college voluntarily and would like to come back, most schools have a separate readmission application form. There is often a fee attached, but in most cases, the form may be submitted at various times of the year so you can resume classes as quickly as possible.
  • Readmission after Academic Dismissal: If you were academically dismissed from a school, you may still be readmitted. The college will likely request an explanation from you regarding your dismissal and how you plan to avoid a similar situation if readmitted. Once accepted, you may have to complete a probationary period, work with an advisor or meet other requirements.
  • Articulation Agreements: Some university systems have guaranteed admissions for graduates of community colleges. Also known as transfer agreements, transfer guides, transfer paths, or reciprocity arrangements, these agreements stipulate a community college graduate will be admitted to a four-year school as a junior.

Articulation agreements can vary by state and not all institutions participate. Contact your community college to learn more about the schools with which they have such arrangements. Their office should also be able to advise you on any steps needed to transfer credits under the agreement.

How to Transfer Your Credits

Transfer students, as well as many adults returning to college, already have some credits under their belt. It took time and money to earn those credits, and you don't want to lose them when switching to a new school.

Will My Credits Transfer?

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 CreditGenerally Accepted at Most CollegesGenerally Not Accepted for TransferMay Be Accepted at Competency Based Schools
Lower division classes in majorColumn2YesColumn3NoColumn4No
Lower division electivesColumn2YesColumn3NoColumn4No
Upper division classesColumn2NoColumn3YesColumn4No
Remedial classesColumn2NoColumn3YesColumn4No
Classes with grades lower than a CColumn2NoColumn3YesColumn4No
Non-degree postsecondary credits (i.e. diploma or certificate programs)Column2NoColumn3NoColumn4Yes
Professional certificationsColumn2NoColumn3NoColumn4Yes
Work experienceColumn2NoColumn3NoColumn4Yes

Most schools operate under a system 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 may award competency units that reflect an individual's mastery of a particular subject, based on previous education, work experience or professional certifications. A lot of factors can play into whether or not your credits will transfer, and it all depends on your unique situation.

FAQs about Credit Transfers

Will my college credits transfer if...Answer
I earned a C- or lower in a specific class.Column2Maybe. Each school has its own policy when it comes to transfer credits.
The course I completed is not offered at the school I want to transfer to.Column2Most colleges only accept transfer credit if they also offer courses with similar content and scope of work.
My school is not accredited.Column2It depends. Some schools will allow you to transfer credits from an unaccredited school provided you meet certain requirements, such as enrolling and maintaining an acceptable GPA.
My previous courses were pass/fail only.Column2It depends. Your courses might transfer if you can prove you earned high marks in the class.
My existing college credits are from more than ten years ago.Column2Maybe. It depends on the school you want to transfer to and their specific policy.

Process for Transferring Credits

As for the actual process of transferring credits, it starts with requesting your new school perform a transcript evaluation to determine which courses they will accept. It's a three-step process.

  1. Student requests official transcript: Ask your previous school(s) to send this document to your new school. The request often must be made in writing, and there may be a processing fee.
  2. College reviews the transcript: Once transcripts are received, a determination will be made as to whether previous credits match any required or elective course offered at the new school. Courses that have no equivalent class or that do not apply to a student's expected course of study may not transfer.
  3. Student informed of decision: Once the review process is complete, the school will let you know their decision about transfer credits.

Credits never expire, but colleges may be less likely to transfer them if you've had a long absence from school. This is especially true for fields such as health care and technology that have changed rapidly in recent years.

Credit for Life or Work Experience

It would be great if you could earn college credit based on your years in the workforce, right? At some online colleges, you can do just that. Each school will have its own criteria for how to evaluate and accept life or work experience for credit, but they typically use one of the following methods.

  • Assessments: For a fee, students may be able to take an exam to demonstrate mastery in an area.
  • Portfolio Review: In this option, a school may review a student's resume and portfolio — which may include things such as written papers, graphic designs and certificates — to determine whether credit is warranted.
  • Professional Recognition: A professional license or credential may translate into credit at some institutions.

Other online schools may offer credit for corporate or military training programs. Check with the registrar for more information on the school's policy and how to apply for work or life experience credits.

Note: Be cautious of any school that says you can earn a degree solely based upon your work history. Reputable online schools will provide credit, but they also require students to take formal classes before graduating. Check a school's accreditation and reputation carefully, especially if they promise a degree without taking classes.

What to Expect on a College Application

At this point, you should have a list of schools to which you'd like to apply. So let's get to what you'll need to include in your application.

What You NeedWhy You Need It
Application FormColumn2Nearly 700 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which supports applications for both first-time and transfer students. This “common” option makes it easy for you to use one application to apply to multiple colleges. While the application can include other components, such as an essay, the form itself is fairly straightforward. Expect to answer basic demographic information as well as details about your prior education and work history.
Application EssayColumn2Adults going back to college and other transfer students may be expected to write an essay on why they would like to switch schools. Have a specific reason in mind (which should be easy if you completed step one above) and avoid saying anything negative about your previous college.
Letters of RecommendationColumn2Although not required by all schools, some will want you to submit letters of recommendation. An employer or professor would both be good choices of people to write a letter on your behalf.
TranscriptsColumn2For returning and transfer students, a college may not be as concerned about your high school grades as much as they want to see your previous college records. Be sure to send them transcripts from any institution that you attended, as schools may also need this information to see which credits can be transferred.
Application FeeColumn2While some online schools have no application fee, most schools still charge one to offset the cost of processing paperwork. The price can vary significantly by institution, but U.S. News and World Report says the average fee is $41.
SAT/ACT Test ScoresColumn2It's not usually necessary to retake the ACT or SAT before returning to college or transferring, but a college might request to see your score from when you took the assessment previously.
College-Specific Assessment TestColumn2Some colleges ask adults returning to college to take an assessment test. This can help the school decide the proper class placement for a person. At some schools, these tests may even allow students to skip certain classes if they demonstrate they already have mastery in an area.
InterviewColumn2Not every school requests an interview, but online schools often like to talk to applicants to help them understand a student's individual needs and goals. These interviews can occur over the phone or via Skype.

Application Checklist

The application process begins long before you actually start filling out any forms. You should begin researching colleges and universities as soon as you know you'll be going back to college or transferring to a new school. Then, send the application to the school at least a few weeks before the deadline to ensure it has time to arrive and be processed.

Here's a checklist of what you need to do in the year before the application deadline.

1 Year Before Application Deadline

  • Research possible majors and related career choices
  • Begin search for private scholarship, grant and loan sources

9 Months Before Application Deadline

  • Narrow the list of schools to those to which you will apply
  • Confirm application deadlines and requirements

6 Months Before Application Deadline

  • Identify teachers, employers or others who could provide letters of recommendation, if needed

3 Months Before Application Deadline

  • Write admissions essays
  • Gather supplemental material
  • Request letters of recommendation

1 Month Before Application Deadline

  • Complete application forms, include supporting documents, and mail or email to schools
  • Request transcripts from high school and college be sent to schools
  • Select a major, if needed or required
  • Schedule interviews with Admissions personnel, if needed
  • Complete FAFSA and request it be sent to the schools (but depending on your potential start date, you may want to do this as soon as you know your target schools)

After Application Deadline

  • Review acceptance letters and financial aid packages
  • Notify schools of your decision
  • Enroll in classes

Returning and transfer students who plan to attend an online program offered by a traditional college or university will generally need to submit their application by January to enroll in fall classes. However, actual application deadlines could range anywhere from early fall to late spring, depending on the institution.

Those interested in attending a fully online school may find they are able to apply and begin classes at any time. Many online schools have rolling admissions, which means they take and review applications through the year. These institutions usually have a quicker turnaround period when it comes to processing applications, and you may receive a decision from an online college in only a few weeks. Meanwhile, traditional colleges can take months to respond, especially if the institution is highly selective.

Going back to college can be an important step to finding a career that fuels your passion. If we've been able to help you understand how to make it happen, perhaps it's time for you, too, to get started on your making your dreams come true.

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