Online Student’s Guide to Transferring College Credits

One in three college students transfer. That makes the process of transferring schools a surprisingly common part of the college experience. Even so, resources that address the process of transferring college credits are scarce.

For the nearly 40% of students that have difficulty getting any credit at a new institution for past courses, this is a serious oversight.

Much to the surprise of students and their families, even the familiar idea of attending two years of community college to keep costs down before transferring to a four-year program actually sets many students back. A lucky 58% of transferring community college students manage to transfer about 90% of their credits, the rest have to settle for transferring far fewer credits than they’ve actually earned.

The long list of reasons why this is troubling should be obvious:

  • It decreases the likelihood of students sticking with higher education long enough to get a degree.
  • Students must retake the same classes at the cost of thousands of dollars and spend additional years in school.
  • The federal government spends more in student aid money for students to take classes they’ve already performed well in once.
  • It adds to the growing issues of student debt and loan delinquency – often for students that don’t end up getting a degree after all.

Part of the problem is that students don’t even know there is a problem with transferring credits until it’s too late.

There’s no one set of advice we can give, because the credit transfer process is wholly dependent on the policies of each institution. The best we can do is offer some general guidelines and tips based on what’s common. To follow up, you’ll need to talk to counselors at the particular institutions in question to get the full picture of how things will work for you.

That said, here are a few things it helps to know.

Definitely Pre-Research (If You Still Can)

If you know that going in you plan to transfer, or if you think it’s a pretty good possibility that you will, you can do some pre-planning. Talk to the counselors at the school you’ll be attending about your intentions and listen to their advice.

If you already have a school or a few top options in mind for your transfer, talk to them too. Start by looking at the transfer policy on their website, but then follow up by contacting them directly with further questions. They may not be able to give you specific answers to every question you have about course equivalencies, but they can give you a pretty good idea to start from.

Again, we want to emphasize that the suggestions here are not going to assure you success 100% across the board, but you will find that certain types of courses transfer more often than others.

To Start: Your General Education Courses.

These are the classes that are needed as prerequisites for just about any type of degree. At many schools they’re identified as 100-level classes. Since these are courses likely to be offered at any institution of higher education, they are fairly likely to transfer from one institution to another.

You have to be careful here though. Not all general level courses are created equal. Doug Smeath from Western Governor’s University (WGU) warned that they’ve encountered many students who overdo the courses in social sciences and humanities, and they’re limited in how many credits in each they can accept. “We really recommend that students come in with some good STEM courses,” he told us.

Courses Specific to Your Major

Ultimately, how your courses relate to your chosen degree can play a big role in which ones transfer. You may find that the college you transfer into will give you credit for courses you’ve taken, but if those credits can’t be applied to your degree program, they won’t help you graduate.

This means that if you change majors somewhere in the middle of your college years, you’re not going to benefit from the credits you’ve already received (at least in terms of earning a degree, you still get all the knowledge). Changing majors can be a good move for some students personally, but it’s a choice that usually means taking more courses overall, which drives up the cost and time of getting a degree.

That’s true even if you don’t transfer schools at any point, but you do risk losing more of those relevant credits in a transfer due to the differences in what’s required in the degree program at each of the institutions.

Classes You Did Well In

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that any class you fail isn’t one you should expect to get credits for. Some colleges may have more stringent requirements beyond that and only allow you credit for courses you received a C or higher in, or offer partial credit based on how well you performed.

Knowing which courses likely won’t transfer is at least as important as knowing which probably will. As with earlier sections, a lot depends on each college’s guidelines, but here are some tips on what to avoid.

Courses from a Non-Accredited Program

This is at the top of the list for a reason. No accredited institution will see a non-accredited institution’s programs as counting for much. Neither will employers, for that matter. You’re better off avoiding non-accredited colleges altogether.

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated though: not all accreditations are equal. Some colleges have regional accreditation and some have national. The regionally accredited programs are often less likely to accept credits from the nationally accredited ones. As Smeath from WGU told us, “Regional accreditation is considered the…gold standard.”

To translate that into more familiar terms, a lot of for-profit college credits won’t transfer to private and public colleges, where the accreditation standards of for-profit programs are seen as less rigorous. Private and public colleges don’t trust that for-profit courses are of a comparable quality to their own classes on the same subjects.

Technical or Professional Courses

This tip comes with a caveat: If you’re transferring from one technical program to another, those technical classes may transfer just fine. But if you’re going from a school more focused on technical or professional training to one with a more traditional four-year program, many of your courses won’t fit easily into their degree requirements.

This goes back to that idea of equivalency that we already touched on briefly. If your past credits fall outside of the kinds of subjects your new school covers and includes in your degree plan, they won’t have a logical way to count them. If you’ve chosen courses similar to those offered at your eventual institution, your new school will have an easier time recognizing their relevancy.

Courses from an Out-Of-State Program

Transferring credits from one state to another won’t necessarily mean you will have problems, but your risk is a tad higher. You see, many colleges in the same state have negotiated deals (articulation agreements) that make the transfer process simpler.

Schools in different states are less likely to have these kinds of deals in place. They’re also less likely to be familiar with the school and program you were in before. Their goal is to determine if the courses you took were of a comparable quality to those they offer. If they have no relationship with, or knowledge of, the institution you’re coming from, that’s harder for them to do.

Most transfer students don’t anticipate their transfer. If you can’t plan ahead which classes to take for the best results, you still have some options to help you get credit for the work you’ve already done.

  • Submit everything you can. Your transcript is the most important thing your new school needs in order to decide which credits you can keep. Without a transcript, you won’t get any credit. Even if it’s been twenty years since you last took college courses, you’ve got to to get those transcripts. Smeath recommended ordering a bunch of sealed transcripts from your last school to have on hand. Being able to send them in yourself speeds up the process considerably, versus requesting your old school send them. But don’t stop with transcripts. Some schools and programs will offer credits for certifications, licenses, relevant work experience, military experience, and high school AP courses. You want to get credit for as much as you possibly can, so be willing to ask about what counts and give them as much information about your educational experience as possible.
  • Be your own advocate. Once the results are in, you can still speak up for yourself if you think an error has been made or a choice should be reconsidered. Who makes the decision of what counts can vary. In some cases, the choice falls to a busy faculty member with little information to go on. If you can show evidence that a course was rigorous and covered the proper material, you may be able to sway them to give you credit for your coursework.The paperwork you submit won’t tell the full story. Talk to an advisor throughout the process who can hear your side of things and take your experiences into account. If the school’s transfer policy already has an appeal process in place, take advantage of it.
  • Look for schools that have articulation agreements. A good portion of the advice on this list can be largely ignored if you just do this one thing. Schools with articulation agreements have already done much of the hard work for you. They’ve worked out agreements on what credits transfer and how. If you transfer between schools that have this kind of deal in place, the whole process will be much smoother and easier on you. If you’re in Florida, you’re in luck. Florida has a statewide system in place specifically designed to make transferring between different Florida schools easier.
  • Stick with one major. As already discussed, changing your major midstream will hurt you when it comes to getting credit for all your courses. Any of your former classes that don’t relate to your new major won’t transfer at all, or will transfer as electives that don’t count toward your degree. You may get to keep those credits in theory, but in practice you’ll still have to take (and pay for) more courses in order to graduate.
  • Be picky when choosing your transfer school. The number of credits you must earn has a significant impact on your long-term college costs, so don’t be impulsive. Talk to advisors at the schools you’re considering to get a clear idea of what you can expect. They may not be able to give you the full specifics in advance of your applying and being accepted, but they’ve been through it with enough other students to speak generally to how it will work. If the school you’re considering has an especially harsh transfer policy, or doesn’t respect the accreditation of your current school, be willing to shop around. An answer you don’t like from one college doesn’t mean you won’t hear something better from another.

Resources That Help

Naturally wherever there’s a problem many people struggle with, savvy startups will come to the rescue. Two companies have released products designed to help students do better research on their transfer options.

  1. Transferology
  2. Transferology lets you load information about your past courses and other relevant experience to find schools likely to give you credit should you decide to transfer. The tool isn’t completely comprehensive; it only searches the information of participating schools. But it can tell you if they have courses or programs that are equivalent to your experience, which is a good starting point to finding out if they’ll count your courses in a transfer.

  4. provides a search function that makes it easy for you to set a few basic parameters and then peruse the college options that come up. The selected search results include a number of relevant details on how each school’s transfer process works. As with Transferology, you can enter specific details about your coursework to see what schools will offer credits for your specific experience.

Transferring colleges is an overwhelming experience no matter how you cut it:

  • You have to move.
  • It takes time to get re-adjusted to a new social scene.
  • Learning all the new ins and outs of how the new school works can be tough.

In other words, you’ll have enough to worry about without learning your credits won’t transfer.

If you’re in that third of students that transfer, knowing what to expect of the credit transfer process will save you money, time, and stress. Be willing to ask questions and advocate for yourself. It could make all the difference in helping you cross that finish line and accept your college degree on time and on budget.