Pursuit of a college degree is no longer a straight-line trajectory. Switching between full and part-time status, taking time off, and transferring schools are common choices for 21st century students. In fact, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, more than a third of students who started college in 2008 had transferred at least once by 2014.
Students generally switch schools to find a better fit with their educational goals, career plans, and personal lives. But those benefits come with a cost. A U.S. Department of Education study found that nearly 40% of transfer students received no transfer credits, losing an average of 27 credits each-- close to a full year of college. With the average cost of in-state tuition hovering around $290 per credit hour, that's a loss of nearly $8,000. Avoid such costly and time-consuming problems by planning ahead and talking to advisors at prospective schools.
However, students should consider a range of factors before starting the process. The new school's accreditation, credit transfer policies, and overarching transfer process should be researched before making any decisions.
If interested in transferring colleges, speak to advisors at both your current school and the one you're considering. Advisors can provide you with answers relevant to your specific situation. That being said, this transfer student guide will provide you with an overview of the issues involved in switching colleges, from transferring credits to arranging finances.
Who Transfers and Why?
College students transfer between schools for a variety of reasons. Common motivators include moving from a 2-year to 4-year program, changing majors, or more personal factors that necessitate a move. Whatever the reason, the good news is that today's college students have more educational options than ever before. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2016, there are 4,992 degree-granting institutions in the United States. This greater flexibility, however, necessitates careful planning when considering a move between schools. Understanding the transfer landscape as it applies to you is paramount. A good place to start is to take a look at the most common circumstances under which students decide to transfer.
- 2-Year to 4-Year
Transferring from a 2-year to a 4-year school is a common path for students. According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 46% of students who completed 4-year degrees had attended a 2-year school within the past 10 years. Many students choose to begin their college careers at 2-year schools in order to save money, get a taste of college life, and make a more informed decision about their prospective majors. Planning ahead is the key to making this a successful transition. Select courses which are most likely to transfer and count towards your bachelor's degree.
- 4-Year to 4-Year
The most common reasons for transferring from one 4-year to another 4-year school include switching majors, financial pressures, changes in personal circumstances, and seeking a better "fit" with a different school, especially when it comes to the size of the institution and its surrounding community. Because institutional strengths and degree programs vary so much, a change in majors can readily prompt a change in schools -- and it's estimated that 75% of college students will switch majors at least once. Before changing your major and your school, be sure to discuss credit requirements with advisors from your old and new institutions.
Moving and interruptions in routines and schedules are part of life in the military, so students in the military may find themselves transferring colleges frequently. The GI Bill provides substantial educational benefits for service members. It also allows students using these military benefits to attend more than one college or university at a time. However, the classes taken at these institutions must all count towards your degree. The school which will ultimately grant the degree must also accept these credits from other institutions.
Currently, 1.5 million foreign students attend higher education institutions in the US, many because they are interested in a specific program or institution. These transfer students face the same challenges as those switching schools within this country, plus a few more. Students with either an F-1 or an M-1 visa may only transfer to schools certified by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program, and M-1 students must do so within six months of arriving. Students transferring to the US from abroad also need to review degree requirements and international credit and degree transfers.
Prior to making the decision to transfer, it's important to confirm the accreditation of your current and prospective schools. Accreditation is the process by which a school's ability to meet defined standards for student achievement, curricula, faculty, facilities, administrative capacity, compliance with government regulations, and much more. Accreditation is designed to assure academic quality and public accountability for colleges.
Students considering transferring colleges are well-advised to make sure each of their prospective schools are accredited. There may be serious repercussions for attending an unaccredited school, including:
- Difficulty in transferring academic credits or getting into graduate school.
- Ineligibility for federal financial aid.
- Inability to obtain professional licensure or meet employment requirements.
Beyond just checking for accreditation, look up the accrediting agency to make sure it's not part of an accreditation mill (illegitimate accreditors). Although the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) do not conduct accreditation reviews, they both maintain lists of agencies they recognize as reputable. USDOE hosts a database that lists schools or programs accredited by agencies the federal government recognizes when awarding financial aid. CHEA places a greater emphasis on academics. This chart lists accreditors that USDOE and/or CHEA recognize. Use these resources when transferring to vet a prospective school or program.
The primary academic concern for any student considering a transfer between schools should be, "Will my credits transfer?" The answer to this question is highly variable, so research is key. In general, transferring credits is simplest between public schools within the same state. Often times these schools have agreements which facilitate credit transfers and may even guarantee admission to students meeting specific requirements.
For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has transfer agreements with several in-state partner institutions. The California State University system maintains a website designed to show students how credits earned at one state school may be transferred to another.
Regardless of the relationship between the schools, it's important to remember that the power to accept or reject credit transfers always lies with the credit-receiving institution. Be sure to look specifically at policies surrounding course equivalency, transfers between course levels, and transfers between quarter and semester systems.
- Course Equivalency
Colleges may accept transfer credits if they are direct equivalents. For instance, one school may accept an English 101 class from another school in lieu of their own English 101 class. Conversely, another school might accept your Composition class, but only as a general elective that counts toward the total credits you need to graduate. It's often simpler to transfer credits from general, lower level classes than it is for more specialized, upper level courses since they vary far more between schools.
- Course Level
It is usually much easier to transfer credits for basic courses, such as 100 and 200 level courses, than it is to transfer upper level courses at the 300 or 400 level. For basic courses, it is not unusual to find direct course equivalency, so the courses you've already taken can count to your degree. Your new school might accept the credits for your upper level courses, but not let them count towards your major, so you may have to retake them. If you have already completed several upper level courses, check with prospective new schools to see if they will accept them.
- Quarter versus Semester
Another factor to consider is whether a school runs on a semester system or a quarter system. While it's best to speak with a transfer counselor at the receiving school, you can estimate the value of transfer credits with the following formulas.
Convert quarter credits to semester credits by dividing quarter credits by 1.5.
3 quarter credits / 1.5 = 2 semester credits
Convert semester credits to quarter credits by multiplying semester credits by 1.5.
3 semester credits x 1.5 = 4.5 quarter credit.
Credit Transfer Appeals
It is not uncommon to have transfer credits denied and downgraded to general elective credits, even if the courses are equivalent to those required at your new institution. If this happens, you are entitled to appeal. Institutions approach the credit transfer appeals process in varying ways, as demonstrated by this example from the State University of New York system.
Generally, all credit transfer appeal processes are designed to provide evidence of equivalency in order to overturn the admission office's first decision. You will most likely be required to provide, among other materials:
- Course materials
- Class descriptions
- Examples of coursework
- Letters from professors, or other authorities on the subject matter
Some schools may not accept transfer credits from a school unless it is regionally accredited. In this case, you may include a statement in your appeal noting that regional accrediting agencies have accepted the ACICS position which states that "transfer decisions are not made solely on the source of accreditation of a sending program or institution."
Academic Residency Requirements
Academic residency requirements state the number of credits students must take at a school to receive a degree. In some cases, they also mandate continuous residency on campus before graduating. This requirement is justified by the idea that institutions need to have students on campus in order to maintain quality control in the degrees awarded.
Academic requirements vary considerably from school to school. Most institutions specify the number of credits that must be earned on campus. Some also specify how many must be upper level courses and/or within students' majors. Additionally, schools may limit the number of transfer credits they will accept. Below are examples of the minimum academic residency requirements for a bachelor's degree:
Georgia State University - 39 semester credit hours in courses numbered 3000 or above with a 2.0 GPA, as well as half of the major courses (or 11 hours in the major), must be taken on campus.
St. John Fisher College - A minimum of 30 graded credit hours, at least 30 of the final 36 credit hours, and at least half of the coursework required by your major must be completed on campus.
Wright State University - A minimum of 30 semester credit hours must be earned on campus, and at least 20 of them must be in courses numbered 3000 or above.
Academic residency requirements have prompted many students to consider continuing their studies online, which has contributed greatly to the rapid growth of online programs. Students who enrolled as many as 10 years ago have still received credit for their earlier work upon enrollment in online programs.
Articulation agreements are arrangements made between two or more educational institutions that clearly lay out the transfer policies between them. These agreements can make transferring colleges simpler, eliminate the need to re-take courses, and save time and money for students. Articulation agreements are commonly made between institutions in the same region, particularly public community colleges and four-year schools in the same state system.
If you're transferring colleges, use online tools to search transfer agreements and find what you're looking for.
Tuition Costs and Residency Requirements
Students seeking new educational opportunities may consider out-of-state schools, but it's important to acknowledge that out-of-state tuition is generally far more expensive. According to the College Board, in 2015-16 the national average for annual in-state tuition public four-year institutions is $9,142. Conversely, the national average for out-of-state tuition is $23,439.
One way to ease the burden of out-of-state tuition is to consider programs offered online. Distance learning allows you to choose from schools across the country with less worry of financial burden, commuting, or finding housing. You may also be able to finish your degree faster, because online programs tend to be more concentrated.
At Arizona State University, for example, online courses for a bachelor's degree in Business Communication cost $523 per credit hour, regardless of residency status. For the Spring 2016 semester, tuition and fees per credit hour at the downtown Phoenix campus were $891 for in-state students and $1,224 for out-of state students.
If you're really drawn to a program or major offered out-of-state, it may be worth it to establish residency there. According to FinAid, eligibility for in-state tuition usually requires at least a year of residency without taking any classes. If you're a "dependent" student, receiving substantial financial support from your parents, at least one of your parents must have lived in that state for a year. To qualify as an "independent" student, you will probably need to demonstrate two years of self-sufficiency and state residency.
How to Transfer Colleges
- Analyze your decision to transfer and conduct extensive research on schools.
- Discuss educational goals with advisor at current school.
- Check for accreditation and articulation agreements, review application deadlines.
- Compile all paperwork needed for transferring colleges.
- Connect with an advisor at your prospective school.
- Confirm transferable credits with the department offering your major and admissions office.
- Weigh the pros and cons of switching colleges.
- Begin application process to school you've decided upon.
- Contact your prospective school's admissions counselor about enrolling.
Financial Aid for Transfer Students
If you are a college student looking to transfer, know that you are not alone. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Center, over 37% of students switch schools at least once. Understandably, transfer students have a number of concerns. They may worry about graduating on time, or losing financial aid. With careful planning though, transfer students can graduate on time while still pursuing financial aid opportunities to help offset the cost of their education.
Transfer students often have problems transferring credits between universities, particularly when switching from a community college to a four-year school. Still, students who make long-term education plans, earn transferable credits, and work diligently to pass each class can can usually graduate on time.
Transfer students worried about whether their financial aid will carry over to their new school should also know that most students who receive aid through FAFSA typically receive similar federal funding at their new college. Individual scholarships and university-specific aid will vary on a case-by-case basis.
You only need to complete one FAFSA per year; if you transfer during the spring semester, the information you list will still apply for your new college. If you transfer during the fall, you need to fill out a new FAFSA form.
Your new school will calculate your student aid qualifications based on your FAFSA, and may award a similar financial aid package as your previous college. Some forms of aid, such as work-study and Federal Perkins loans, are non-transferable. Your aid may also change based on what you received in the previous semester, or if your new school is substantially less expensive than your previous college.
Your portion of college costs remains the same, regardless of changes in your aid. If you do lose aid as a transfer student, you may need to pay the difference.
To update your FAFSA during a spring transfer, simply change the federal school code on your form.
One prominent source of stress for transfer students is their loans, and how they are affected by a transfer. Federal student loans do not transfer directly between colleges. After you update your FAFSA, you may find that your federal loans remain nearly identical. You may, however, lose certain loans you received at your previous school, such as Perkins loans. Additionally, if you move from a four-year school to a two-year program, your eligibility for Subsidized Stafford loans may decrease substantially. If you receive private loans, you may need to fill out deferment forms or school certifications to continue receiving those funds.
When you leave a college, your outstanding student loans enter a "grace period." Occasionally you might be required to start paying those loans back quite soon - sometimes within sixth months. Fortunately, if you immediately transfer to a new college, you are eligible to apply for an in-school loan deferment. This allows you to delay all loan repayments until you leave school.
Scholarships for Transfer Students
Transfer students may lose some of their scholarships if they switch schools. Notably, school-specific scholarships cannot be shifted to your new college. If you received your scholarship from an outside foundation or community group, you may be able to transfer those awards to your new college. That said, there are plenty of scholarships available to transfer students, and the applications aren't difficult. Most scholarship applications require you to submit an essay and your school transcripts. Some require you to demonstrate financial need, while others may ask you to highlight your achievements in art, sports, leadership, public service, or some other endeavor. Many scholarships also require a letter of recommendation from an advisor or mentor.
- Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship
Who's Eligible? Applicants must be current students at an accredited US community college or other two-year institution with plans to enroll full time in a baccalaureate program at an accredited college or university the following year. Students must also have a cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.5 or better on a 4.0 scale, and need to demonstrate significant unmet financial need. They cannot have previously enrolled at or attended a four-year institution.
Award Amount: up to $40,000 per year
- Tau Sigma Scholarships
Who's Eligible? Available to transfer students who join Tau Sigma, a fraternity specifically for college students who transfer to a four-year college. Students can join Tau Sigma if they display exemplary academic performance in their first semester at their transfer school. Students can apply for the scholarship in the fall, after joining Tau Sigma. Each Tau Sigma chapter selects a member to nominate for the award.
Award Amount: $500 - $3500
- AICPA Foundation Two-Year Transfer School
Who's Eligible? Students who have completed an associate degree in business, accounting, finance, or economics and who plan to major in accounting at a four-year college are eligible. Applicants must have earned a 3.0 GPA or better on a 4.0 scale.
Award Amount: $5,000
- New York Transfer and Articulation Association Transfer Scholarship
Who's Eligible? Students who earned an associate degree at any NYSTAA two-year college, with a 3.5 GPA or better, are eligible.
Award Amount: $1,000
- Darrel Hess Community College Geography Scholarship
Who's Eligible? Applicants must be enrolled at a two-year college and have completed two courses in geography. They must also plan to attend a four-year school as a geography major.
Award Amount: $1,500
- Guistwhite Scholarship
Who's Eligible? To be eligible, students must be active members of Phi Theta Kappa, the academic honor society for two-year college students. They must have completed 30 semester college level credits at a junior college in the past five years, with a GPA exceeding 3.5. Only prospective transfer students are eligible.
Award Amount: $5,000
- Priscilla Carney Jones Scholarship
Who's Eligible? Applicants must be transferring to a four-year college as a junior or senior; the award is for students planning to major in chemistry or a related field. Only students with a GPA above 3.25 will be considered.
Award Amount: $1,500
- New England Transfer Association Scholarship
Who's Eligible? Students must be on track to earn an associate degree from an NETA 2-year school with at least a 3.25 GPA. They must also plan to transfer to an NETA-affiliated four-year college.
Award Amount: $1,000
Scholarships for Community College Transfers
- META Scholarships
Who's Eligible? Students enrolled in two-year colleges are eligible if they plan to pursue a bachelor's degree from a four-year university. Applicants must be U.S. Citizens of Hispanic origin, and have earned a 3.00 GPA or better.
Award Amount: $500 to $7,500
- Hites Transfer Scholarship
Who's Eligible? Students must be part of Phi Theta Kappa and be planning to transfer to a four-year college. Applicants need a 3.5 GPA or better and must be enrolled in a community college.
Award Amount: $7,500
- The Community College Graduate Scholarship
Who's Eligible? Community college students who can demonstrate financial need are encouraged to apply. Applicants must have earned an associate degree from a community college with a 2.5 GPA or better.
Award Amount: Up to $25,000
Grants for Transfer Students
College grants are funds that students receive free of charge, with no condition of repayment. To receive college grants from the government, students need to apply through FAFSA. Grants are not scholarships. While scholarships are typically awarded based on academics, athletics, or some form of achievement, grants are dispensed based primarily on financial need. Grants are also available to students participating in military-sponsored programs, and students in STEM and healthcare fields. Students are not limited to the grants provided by the government: many colleges, businesses, or other private and public organizations offer grants to reduce the burden of tuition.
Other Ways to Save
Be careful about your timing - Timing your transfer properly can help ensure that all of your credits transfer successfully. Many colleges require students to earn a minimum number of credits on-campus, usually between two and three years' worth. If you transfer too late, you may not be able to transfer all of your hard-earned credits.
Articulation agreements - Find out if your current school has transfer articulation agreements with any colleges that might be a good fit for you. Transfer articulation agreements are made between colleges to guarantee that students can transfer credits between schools. Attending one of these schools ensures that you won't lose any of the credits you've already paid for.
Pick a major - Before you transfer, come to a firm decision about what your major and any additional concentrations will be. Transferring requires careful planning, and you should map your long term plans before you switch schools. It's difficult to make these kinds of plans when you don't know what degree you want. If you go into your transfer school without a defined plan, you take a costly gamble of prolonging your college education by a semester or more.
Skip pricey dorm living - Transfer students can save money by avoiding dorms and cafeteria meal plans. Living with family would be a huge relief to your finances. If you are looking for off-campus housing, start your apartment hunt early to maximize your chances of finding economical housing nearby.
Stay aware of time lines - Many federal and state financial aid programs have a strict time limit for eligibility. For example, the Federal Pell Grant only provides aid for 12 semesters of college. Stay vigilant of your time limits, and be sure to take as many credits as you can within that time frame.
- I've taken time off, am I still considered a transfer student?
That depends on whether you plan to enroll at a school you have previously attended. Often, when students have taken time off from college and then start taking classes again, they are considered "returning" students, particularly if they go back to the same institution. "Transfer students" are students who have previously attended a different college or university and hope to attend a new school.
- Do I need to have a major selected when I apply to transfer?
Requirements for transfer students and declaring a major vary between institutions. For example, the University of California at Santa Cruz requires junior students to declare their majors by the second quarter. The University of Florida requires students to declare a major when they apply. Transfer students entering Hunter College with at least 60 credits must declare a major by the end of their first semester.
- Is it easier to transfer to a school than be admitted right out of high school?
There is a great deal of similarity between the application process for transfer students and incoming freshmen. However, since transfer students have already been through the process at least once, they may be more comfortable with it. As USA Today reports, some schools may require a lower grade point for students who are switching colleges than they do for those right out of high schools. However, some schools accept a lower percentage of transfer student applicants than freshman.
- Do schools only accept a certain amount of transfer students a quarter/semester/year?
Transfer student acceptance policies vary a great deal from school to school. Your best bet is to check on the individual policies at the schools you're interested in. Data from TransferWeb.com shows the transfer student acceptance rates for the top 50 colleges and universities in the country, which range from a low of 1.04 at Harvard University, to a high of 59.73 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
- Can you transfer schools mid-year?
It is possible to transfer schools mid-year, but to do so you need to start the process in October. It is most common for students to transfer schools at the beginning of the year. As TransferWeb notes, this gives you time to further establish your college credentials, gather letters of recommendation, and polish your applications.
- Are there prerequisites for transfer students?
All colleges and universities have their own standards and prerequisites for accepting students who are transferring colleges. Your best bet is to review the admissions standards of all the schools you're considering.
For example, at Arizona State University, the requirements include an associate's degree from a regionally-accredited institution and a minimum GPA of 2.0 for in-state students and 2.5 for out-of-state-residents; some majors may have higher requirements. At the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, transfer students must be eligible to return to their previous school and have 24 hours of transferable credit from a regionally accredited institution -- or meet freshman application standards and submit their SAT or ACT scores. The average GPA for accepted transfer students was 3.09.
- I previously applied to the school I want to transfer to, do I need to apply again?
When you're transferring colleges and applying to different schools, you need to follow each school's application process exactly; this also applies when sending documents and letters of recommendation.
- Is standardized testing required for transfer students?
The more college courses you've completed successfully, the less interest a prospective school will have in your standardized test scores. Some schools may request your SAT or ACT scores in addition to your college grades, but your grades will be more important.
- If I don't meet all of the requirements for transfer, should I bother?
College admissions officers consider many different factors when evaluating potential students, such standardized test scores, GPA, personal essays, and diversity of cultural and geographical background.
Some colleges and universities, such as Minnesota State Colleges & Universities, offer special programs for students who do not meet their standard admission requirements. Many community colleges offer remedial programs to help improve students' ability to handle college-level work and improve their GPAs.
Several of the most Frequently Asked Questions regarding transferring colleges are answered below.
This guidebook offers vital information for college athletes who want to transfer.
Collegeboard.org offers a great guide for students transferring from a two-year to a four-year college, complete with informational videos.
This website allows you to map out all possible degree-completion routes, determining feasibility, convenience, and price.
Transferology helps students determine how many credits they can transfer to a new school, and helps students find replacement courses they can take to earn the credits they need.
Transfer Web is an online hub for students looking to share and receive advice and feedback about every stage of the transfer process.
A collection of blogs written by transfer students recounting their experiences and offering advice to prospective transferees.