How students can maximize their transfer credits

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By: John Mullane, President, College Transfer Solutions, sponsored by DegreeSight




Whether you are currently attending college and looking to transfer to a new school or a former college student looking to return and complete a degree, one of the most important questions to ask before enrolling in a new school is, “How many of my credits will transfer and apply to my degree?”


While the cost of college is always a concern, that final cost ultimately depends on how many credits will successfully transfer and how long it will then take to complete a bachelor’s degree?


This will take some extra effort, but in the end it can save you lots of time and money and make a bachelor’s degree more affordable and accessible.

John Mullane, College Transfer Solutions


The Transfer Dilemma


The largest barrier to a transfer student completing a bachelor’s degree is losing credits when transferring to a four-year institution, the more credits they lose the less likely they are to be able to complete their degree.  When schools reject credits they are forcing students to pay twice to retake courses, this costs students more time and more money and drives up the cost of a degree.   



There are several steps that can be taken to get those rejected credits to transfer.  This will take some extra effort, but in the end it can save you lots of time and money and make a bachelor’s degree more affordable and accessible.


The average transfer student loses more than 40 percent of their credits.  My previous research, as well as data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Government Accountability Office would suggest that the average community college student who transfers to a public four-year institution, the most common transfer path, loses an average of 20 percent of their credits.  This loss of credits would be equivalent to almost an entire semester of credits and would delay the students time to graduate. 



One of the major reasons schools give for rejecting credits is that they say that the transfer courses are not comparable or as rigorous as the ones offered at their school.  The schools also say that if the students don’t retake those courses then they won’t be academically prepared to do well in upper division classes.  This excuse is simply not true.  My previous research has shown that the more credits a student can successfully transfer to a school, the better they do academically and the more likely they are to eventually graduate from that school.  



My research has also shown that tuition cost is not the biggest factor when students decide where to transfer.  How many credits a student can successfully transfer and whether or not they can graduate on time seem to be much more important to students.  A private college that accepts all your credits may be more affordable in the end than a state university that rejects your credits and delays your graduation.   Another factor is the lost wages of spending an extra semester or year in school.




The total market is declining, but transfers are increasing!


While the number of students enrolled in college has been declining, the percentage of students transferring has been increasing.  Colleges that do the best job serving transfer students will be the ones to thrive over the next several years.  With the coronavirus pandemic creating so much uncertainty about the future and the economy, I expect a lot of students will look to transfer schools to take courses closer to home and save money.   




According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 38 percent of all college students will transfer at least once before completing a bachelor’s degree.  The vast majority of students will transfer either into or out of a community college.  Inefficient transfer credit systems cause a large number of community college students to transfer before completing their associate’s degree. For those who started at a community college, only 5.6 percent of students transferred after earning an associate’s degree at their starting institution. 




Currently, there are over 36 million American adults who have attended college, earned credits, and dropped out without earning a degree.  Community college transfer students represent 49 percent of all students who complete bachelor’s degrees in the United States.  




A report from the NSC Research Center shows that the more colleges a student attends, the longer it takes to get a degree. This is a major reason that students do not graduate on time. Most students take 5.1 years to get a bachelor’s degree. At public four-year colleges, it takes students 5.2 years, and at public two-year colleges, it takes 3.4 years for an associate’s degree.




How to get all of your credits to transfer


In order to graduate on time, it is important to ensure that your credits transfer.  There are steps that can be taken in order to have rejected credits transfer and apply to your degree.  



Make sure the schools have transcripts from every college you have attended.  There are also several other ways that college credits can be earned, such as Advanced Placement courses in High School and Military credits.  If you have knowledge and training in certain subjects you can take a CLEP exam.   Another option is to see if the college will award credit for work or life experience.   For example, if you spent the past few years working at a software company and are looking for a degree in computer science it would be a good idea to meet with a professor in that department to see if you can receive credit for that experience.  Or if you have been a manager for 10 years, do you really need to take Principles of Management?



Some schools may also have an online degree tool that allows you to input your credits, pick a major and see how they would transfer to that school or a group of schools.   



According to David Cook, the CEO of DegreeSight, who developed a product that allows students to keep track of their full transcripts and oversee the submission of those courses to multiple schools, “It is incredibly important to make the transfer process as simple and transparent as possible for students if we’re going to help them finish their degree.  It’s a win for everybody, reducing fear for students while helping them and their families save valuable time and money.”

It is incredibly important to make the transfer process as simple and transparent as possible for students.  It’s a win for everybody, reducing fear for students while helping them and their families save valuable time and money

David Cook, DegreeSight

When you receive your transfer credit evaluation, you want to look closely to see how many of your courses and credits were eligible to transfer and how many of those courses and credits actually applied to your bachelor’s degree.   By this, I mean how many credits met general education requirements and how many credits met major requirements.   The other category is the “open elective” area, where a student can get credit for the courses but they go into an unused bucket of excess credits.



Credits being “accepted”, but not applying to your degree…

A bachelor’s degree will require a certain amount of general education credits, credits in the major and electives.   A trick that colleges use is they say they will accept up to 60 or 90 credits from transfer students, but they give elective credit and not apply it to their major.  For example courses in biology, engineering, business, or computer science, instead of being transferred in as the same courses and applying to your major, they will instead transfer in as biology elective credit or engineering elective credit.  


This will force you to pay twice to retake those same courses and will delay your time to graduate by a semester or even a year or longer depending on how many of the credits were rejected.    This has been a long-standing problem for transfer students.  



This trick can make it appear that all your credits were accepted, when in fact you are going to have to retake courses.   The average transfer student loses over 12 credits, almost an entire semester of work.   Even students who do everything they are supposed to do (identify a transfer destination and major early in college, follow a Transfer and Articulation agreement if one exists, reach out to the four-year school for advising) can still find not all courses are transferring.   Many Transfer and Articulation agreements can be very broad and contain a lot of loopholes that can make it difficult for credits to transfer.




When in doubt, appeal

After you receive your transfer evaluation, appeal the decision.  The evaluation is usually done by the admissions office.  Offices are very understaffed and that office may be responsible for hundreds or even thousands of evaluations.  Many students don’t appeal these decisions or their appeal may only consist of having a follow-up conversation or email with the staff member or office that did the initial evaluation. But when this can save you thousands, it’s worth fighting for.



The next step should be to speak with the academic department at your potential transfer school that teaches the courses that were rejected.  For example, if your business courses were rejected, you want to speak with the business department.  Colleges are very decentralized which means that faculty in the departments decide what courses they will and will not accept.   This also means that a department can also do what is called a “course substitution.”   This is when a school allows a student to take a different course than the course required for their degree.  

Many students don’t appeal these decisions or their appeal may only consist of having a follow up conversation or email with the staff member or office that did the initial evaluation. But when this can save you thousands, its worth fighting for.

Find out if that department has a designated faculty member that handles transfer students, if they don’t then reach out to the department chair.



Come prepared…

Before the meeting you should be prepared with as much information as possible, the more prepared you are, the more likely you will be to get those credits accepted.   This is also important because it will make a good first impression and show that you are an organized and responsible student.


Make sure you have a copy of your transfer evaluation showing the courses that were accepted and rejected.   Also, have copies of your transcripts from your previous schools that show the grades you received in those classes.  If you have any previous training or certifications that you think may be relevant to that major, include those as well.  



Scan everything into documents that can be emailed to the faculty member if it is a phone meeting or shared on your screen if you are meeting virtually.  Make sure you also have course descriptions of the courses that were rejected, most colleges have these available on their websites.   Some faculty will go as far as wanting to also see the course syllabus, depending on when you took those courses, this may be difficult to get.   If you can’t get this, then wait to see if the faculty member requests them.




Don’t be afraid to make your case

During the meeting, you should discuss your grades in those courses as well as your knowledge of that subject matter and how hard you have worked to get to this point in your academic career.   You can also mention the data from this article that shows how transfer students do just as well, if not better, academically as students who start at four-year schools their freshman year.   

Transfer students do just as well, if not better, academically as students who start at four year schools as freshman.   

I have spent over a decade working with transfer students and I have even had situations when the four-year school wanted to speak with the faculty member who taught the course to find out what content was covered.



If after doing all this, they still refuse to accept those credits, ask if there is another way you can prove your knowledge of that subject matter.   This could include an assessment or doing a portfolio showing your prior knowledge or experience.



This will all take time and effort and can be a very frustrating process, but in the end, it can save you a lot of time and money and help you to achieve your academic and career goals.



“It’s worth it!”


John Mullane is president and founder of College Transfer Solutions, LLC.  College Transfer Solutions provides research, policy advocacy, and consulting to help colleges and universities better serve transfer students.

DegreeSight is a company that helps students track their course credits and submit them to multiple colleges at once, helping students save thousands and graduate on time.

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