Finishing What You Start: How to Navigate the World of College Transfer Credits

Historically, transfer students wind up ignored when gathering statistics. They almost always get lumped in with other demographics instead. A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center finally glimpsed into the world of the oft-overlooked transfers, noting that they make up one-third of the entire student population. Part-time students are only slightly more likely to transfer than their full-time peers, at a rate of 33.9% to 32.6%.

The most surprising finding completely dismantled common assumptions about how and why students transfer their credits from one institution to the other. Most tend to think this happens from two-year schools to four-year, but trends reveal otherwise. A surprising 51.9% move from four-year schools to two-year, while 37.6% of total two-year transfer students transition from two-year to two-year. Compare that to 41.2% from two-year to four-year. Across the board, the students most likely to transfer are in their second year of school.

NSCRC's study did not explore why students decide to transfer from one school to another, but they are not difficult to glean. Cost, obviously, and finding a more suitable program (including switching majors) both stand as the experts' most common choices. But moving because of life changes, like caring for an ailing relative or personal health reasons, might also compel some to switch.

Amy Tran is a former journalism student now working as a content manager for a dotcom. She moved from University of Houston to Boston University after her second semester to cut back on her stress levels. For her, "getting the transfer paperwork completed was a bit of a hassle, but not much more so than what you go through when you first enroll in college.”

"I attended a two-day orientation at BU during the summer before I officially moved there and began classes. That was mainly to take ID photos and tour the campus. It was school-sanctioned. We were there during 'Fish Camp,' [a slang term for freshman orientation, mainly associated with Texas A&M University] but just in our own group as transfer students,” she says.

Her experiences should reassure anyone thinking about moving from school to school: "It was a surprisingly easy transition.”


The Variables

Policies regarding credit transfers vary from school to school, obviously. Almost all of them limit the number that students can move, typically no more than two years' worth of classes, or 180 credit hours for four-year colleges and 80 for two-year. Some might not make the cut because the new institution does not offer an equivalent course, but in these instances many schools accept them as electives.

"I think this is the most important part of transferring, and probably the most challenging: finding out where you stand in terms of credits towards your degree and major,” Tran says. "If you know you're going to transfer, I advise not taking any major-specific courses until you're at your final school because a lot of schools want you to complete all your major-specific classes at their institution.”

"This means if you're a journalism student and you take a few journalism classes at your old school, they may not count towards your journalism major when you're at your new one, so you'd have to take those classes all over again,” she warns. "Really talk to your advisors at both schools to get that sorted out. Basic classes are much easier to transfer. Just stay organized and have your paperwork and forms together.”

One of the most painless ways to transfer credits is to take Advanced Placement (AP) or College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests while in high school. Colleges and universities do vary somewhat when it comes to the minimum scores they will accept. But almost all of them will take passing scores thanks to core curriculum standards. However, students need to check and see just how many AP and CLEP credits their desired schools will allow them to transfer in — most have a maximum amount.

Students moving between public community colleges and other two-year institutions or towards four-year schools should explore any arrangements made where the four-year accepts every credit earned at the two-year. Blinn College and Texas A&M University, for example, have such an agreement. Enrollees in certain programs at the community college can transfer every single one of their credit hours directly into the university after two years. This arrangement can be found in most states, however, and will usually include moves between four-year and four-year institutions as well.

Transferring from one public school to another within the same state should be comparatively painless thanks to core curricula. However, the destination institutions still usually cap how many credits can be brought in at a time, even with equivalences. More specialized, higher-level classes might wind up rejected as well. Schools want students graduating after displaying competency in their chosen fields, and the courses at others might not line up in the exacting way they want.

Moving from Texas to Massachusetts also meant she had to receive certain vaccinations because of state laws. "Look into state requirements for things like immunizations and health checkups if you're switching to a school in another state,” Tran says.

Depending on a school's relationship with the Armed Forces, military service can transfer over as college credit as well. All branches keep running transcripts of what training translates to what kind of higher education courses, with each one adapting their own system.

For individuals taking extended breaks between semesters, the transferring process might prove a mite more challenging, though in no way impossible. College credits do not have an official "expiration date.” But some schools will still restrict transfers on the basis of time lapsed, usually after 10 years. They might also limit the number based on whether or not the classes were completed at a two-year or four-year institution; grades might also impact their decision, with the cutoff usually at nothing below a C.

Restricting transferred credit is a particularly prevalent practice in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM), especially medicine. Because the skills and requirements in STEM evolve and change as new research emerges, schools want their students to enter the workforce with updated knowledge — crucial in situations where peoples' health and safety is at stake. The visual arts and many of the humanities and liberal arts do not change nearly as rapidly as these industries, so students devoted to them will likely prove more fortunate when returning from a prolonged higher education absence.

International schools' credits prove the most challenging. Acceptance hinges on whether or not the United States recognizes the accrediting bodies who approved schools in the original nation. In the case of countries where English is not the primary language, students are almost always required to send their transcripts in it.

"The earlier you transfer, the easier the experience will be,” advises Tran, and her tips apply to every transfer student demographic. "One of my friends at BU transferred in after her sophomore year, and she had to make up a lot of credits because quite a few of them didn't transfer. I had the same issue as well, but at a much smaller scale before I only spent one year at my previous school.”

"To make up for this, I overloaded on classes one semester and also stayed for a summer term once. My friend had to overload for two semesters and stay for two summers to make up the credits so that she would still graduate on time,” she says.

These possible setbacks ought not discourage students from transferring, of course. But before committing to a specific school or program, students will have to commit themselves to some intensive research first. Because there is not one universal standard to which transfer students and their credits are held, it will require some e-mails and phone calls to suss out the most appropriate transitions.

Websites such as and provide an essential service for transfer students as well. There, they plug in their current schools, courses, and programs as well as the desired schools, courses, and programs. The tool then returns information about which credits will transfer over and which ones won't. Although these resources certainly save time, they still does not replace directly contacting schools about their credit transferring policy.


The Problem with Equivalencies

Regardless of whether or not transfer credits come from AP exams or an international college, the major problem with moving from one campus to another is almost always equivalencies.

"Faculty at every institution spend a daunting amount of time deciding on which of their own classes and programs to approve,” says Dr. Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University. "Colleges and universities take the approval of degrees as one of their most important activities, and each institution delineates what courses in particular combinations constitute the right work to be given the corresponding degree. In other words, the school puts their name on every diploma, and is verifying that the student has completed the work appropriate to that degree.”

At the root of the problem is whether schools are comparing apples to apples.

"With each institution crafting distinct courses and pathways to degree, getting those to align can be enormously challenging,” says Flagel. "Even the assumption that a basic English or Math course might be the same at two different institutions can be wrong — the course may appropriately prepare student for upper level courses at one institution, but be entirely insufficient at another.”

Students should come into the transfer with their eyes wide open — and realize that colleges and universities want students to be best prepared for upper level courses and life after graduation.


A Different Approach

Some higher ed institutions, like Thomas Edison State College, take a more open strategy when it comes to accepting transfer students.

"Thomas Edison State College has one of the most flexible transfer credit policies in the country,” says David Hoftiezer, Director of Admissions. "First, we accept credit regardless of age, meaning 'credits do not expire.' Often institutions will not accept credit that is more than 10 years old. Institutions should be more flexible when it comes to the acceptance of transfer credit. Colleges often limit the amount of credit you can transfer, Thomas Edison State College does not.”

He believes that "being very liberal and flexible” are necessary qualities when dealing with transfer students. "Many institutions will not accept credit more than 10 years old. This roadblock could be easily removed,” Hoftiezer says.

Excelsior College also features an open program for transfer students looking for more flexibility and fewer migraines. It recognizes the usual credits from other schools, the military, and AP and CLEP tests. Students who display competency via portfolios, corporate training and experience, qualified certifications, industry training, and classes offered at partner organizations may receive credits for their efforts as well.

These flexible, comparatively open strategies acknowledge experience and know-how gleaned outside the classroom. As a bonus, it makes higher education more accessible to returning students, no matter how much time elapses between leaving school and going back for more. Not every program necessarily benefits from no credit transfer regulation whatsoever, like healthcare. But schools could still afford a little broadening of their standards to help ease student transitions from one institution to another.

"Unfortunately, the most typical route, whether a student is traditional or non-traditional, is that the student must first gain admissions, and in many cases even deposit, before finding out what credits will transfer,” says Flagel. "Even if a student knows what credits will transfer, that often does not include how those credits will apply to a particular major, or what process a student may need to follow in order to have a course count for a specific equivalency.”

Students ought not be swayed from transferring if they feel it the right decision. But they do need to understand the reality. "I often suggest that transferring should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint,” says Flagel. "It is rare to find institutions that offer easy transfer credit processes — even those with robust articulations can often be very complicated.”

"My advice is to have patience with the process. Higher education is only just now learning to adapt to the reality that the majority of students seeking baccalaureate degrees transfer at some point before obtaining that degree,” he adds. "I suspect these processes will get easier and more efficient, but that the challenges … indicate that it's unlikely to feel intuitive to prospective transfer students.”


How to Get It Done

In spite of the myriad variables in the credit transferring process, it's actually one of the least migraine-inducing rounds of paperwork a student will experience in their college careers. They should still keep a few things in mind while undertaking the move from one school to another.

  • Research: Research everything. This means scanning a potential school's website or contacting their admissions department with questions about what they will and will not accept. They can answer anything regarding course equivalencies, "expiration dates,” the maximum number allowed, and any other variable. Researching also turns up possible programming options that could very well save money, but still get accepted by their desired destinations once the student decides to transfer out.
  • Know what "expires” and what doesn't: Some schools will not accept credits over 10 years old, and for more dynamic disciplines — like medicine — the cutoff might be even sooner than that. "Expiration dates” should not be a concern for students transferring directly from one college to another. But those taking longer breaks from higher education need to research which schools will or will not recognize the credits they've accumulated so far.
  • If transferring from an international school, send everything in English: Every American school is going to ask this of international students transferring from an institution where English is not the primary language.
  • Transfer in state, if possible: Many situations will require a student to move out of state, of course. But staying within a state's public college system maximizes the amount of time and money saved. Thanks to core curriculum and other agreements, it is much, much easier to transfer credits between state schools than from one state to another; mostly because it is much, much more likely that they'll accept most of the credits involved.
  • Check for any special arrangements between two-year and four-year schools: Like transferring within the state, other programs linking two-year institutions to four-year also prove far smoother than most other arrangements. Some will accept two full years' worth of classes and apply them to a four-year degree. But students will have to research their options before enrolling at one particular school.
  • Look for scholarships: Scholarships for transfer students defray some of the costs associated with moving between schools. Any research regimen should include searching for funding. Contacting the admissions office of the desired destination might yield more options than an Internet search. It should be noted that some students might lose scholarships in the transition if the money is attached to a specific school or major. So they will need to check whether or not their benefactors might pull the funding should they transfer as well.
  • Consider AP, CLEP, and state- or industry-specific training options: As one example, members of The University System of Ohio accept some accredited professional certificate programs for credit. CLEP and AP exams provide a far cheaper option than enrolling in a college course, and pretty much every two-year and four-year school across the country will accept them. Though the maximum amount schools will accept varies, so read up.

Hoftiezer offers up some very straightforward advice for students transferring schools with years between classes.

"You will need to get 're-acclimated' to school and the learning environment,” he says. "Success breeds success, so take it 'one step at a time.' Take one course … get used to being back in school and build from there.”

Transferring college credit, even after a long absence from the classroom, is not nearly as difficult or intimidating as it might initially appear. The process requires some degree of research and a few piles of paperwork, but still proves well worth the effort.