How To Transfer Colleges

You’ve done it! You enrolled in the college of your choice on National Decision Day, submitted the final paperwork and (gulp) the first payments, and you’re set until you graduate with your degree. Right? Well, not necessarily. 

While many students continue on with their initial degree paths at the school they first choose, many others make the decision to transfer schools at some point. In fact, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there were 2.4 million transitions between first-time college enrollees between 2008-2014.1 

Students transfer for many reasons:

  • A change of degree choices
  • Finances
  • Life circumstances
  • Personalfit or preference
  • Many more

The good news is that even if you do have to transfer colleges down the road, you may still be able to use those credits you’ve already earned. 

Read on for an easy guide on how to transfer colleges and why your choice on “Decision Day,” isn’t always final. 

How to Transfer Colleges: A Step-By-Step Guide

If you find yourself faced with the situation of needing to transfer colleges, there are a few steps you will need to take. 

What Do I Need To Transfer Colleges or College Credits?

First things first, you’ll need to gather all the materials to make the switch happen. This can include: 

  • Your official transcripts from the school you are currently or previously enrolled in
  • Your official transcripts from any school you previously attended
  • SAT or ACT scores for younger students, especially if you didn’t finish some of your basic general education courses
  • Any application requirements for the new school (you will need to apply to the new school first before trying to transfer any credits) 
  • Any application requirements for the specific program you’re applying to (i.e. a nursing program)
  • Documentation for any special accommodations, such as disabilities, etc. 

And while this is a basic list of the paperwork you may need, it’s important to speak directly with the schools, as every school has their own requirements. 

Who Do I Speak With To Transfer Colleges?

“The admissions office will be your first stop,” says Thom Saelens, Site Director for Mott Community College, who has specialized in helping admit students to community college and transfer to larger, four-year universities throughout his career.  

Saelens explains that most universities will have a transfer admissions representative to help you through the process and evaluate your transcripts. They’ll be able to tell you which credits will transfer and what you will need for your program. He does recommend scheduling time to talk with a transfer admissions rep even before you officially apply to the school. That way you can get an idea of what you need and have your questions answered ahead of time. After you’re accepted, you’ll want to send in your official transcripts to start the official transfer process. 

Where Do I Go To Submit College Transfer Paperwork?

The answer here is, again, the admissions office. All of your transfer paperwork and your application will be sent directly to the university’s admission’s office. If the admissions office at the school has a separate portal for transfer students, you can send your paperwork directly there. Otherwise, the admissions office will direct it to the correct person.  

When Is The Deadline to Transfer Colleges?

Saelens explains that most colleges will have deadlines for transfer students just like they do for first-time freshmen, but those specific deadlines will vary by school. In general though, the earlier, the better. 

For instance, if you’re looking to transfer in the fall semester, Saelens suggests applying in January or February of that same year. “Aim for applying at least 5-6 months before you need to transfer–that way you can get the transfer process going in case you run into any problems,” he says. 

There are three main reasons you’ll want to apply as early as possible:

  1. Limited enrollment spots. If you’re applying to transfer to a more prestigious college, they only have a limited number of spots. Apply too late, and there may simply not be a spot for you at the school or in the program you’re aiming to enroll in. 
  2. Financial aid opportunities. You’ll have a better chance of being eligible for more financial aid and scholarships. “If you apply late, you’re not even in the pool,” Saelens points out. 
  3. Admission deadlines. There will be admissions deadlines for both your school and the program you’re applying to. For instance, although you may make the admissions deadline for the school itself, if the specialty program has a different cut-off, you may miss out on a spot in the actual program you need. “That’s a really important distinction that not all students are aware of,” Saelens adds. 

How Do I Transfer Colleges?

Before you transfer colleges, here are  the steps you need to take to make it happen:

Step 1: Know your why

The first step is evaluating why you need to transfer. Although that might seem obvious, Saelens says it’s actually a step that he sees a lot of students miss. They may assume they need to transfer, or haven’t put a lot of thought into why they are transferring in the first place. “You want to have a plan because it’s a big step,” he says. “Make sure it’s something you really need for your degree and the school is a good choice for you.” 

Step 2: Choose your school

Once you’re clear on why you need to transfer, you can choose a school and program that meets your needs. Again, you’ll want to double-check that both the school AND the program you’ll be applying for are a good fit for you. 

Step 3: Talk to an advisor

Before you apply, Saelens recommends either meeting or speaking with an advisor at the new school and within the program you’re going to transfer into to make sure it meets your needs and that your credits will transfer. 

Step 4: Apply to the school

You’ll need to apply before you send in any transfer paperwork–otherwise, the admissions office won’t have a way to process it. 

Step 5: Submit your transfer paperwork

Once you’re officially accepted into the school, you can submit all of your transfer paperwork. 

While you should always meet with an advisor to have your official transcript reviewed, you may also be able to do some preliminary research on your own to see how your credits will transfer. Many schools, especially those who are used to transferring students, may already have a transfer portal online that you can plug your courses into and see how they transfer. 

Some states will also have their own transfer network, so do some digging online to see if you can find yours. For instance, the state of Michigan offers a Michigan Transfer Network site that helps students see how their current courses transfer to other colleges in the state. 

Why Do Students Transfer Colleges?

There are many reasons why people may want or need to transfer colleges. Here are a few: 

  • You need to transfer due to financial considerations. If you experience a change in finances, you may need to transfer to a more affordable school. 
  • You transfer to complete a degree. For instance, many students transfer from a community college to university in order to complete a bachelor’s degree. According to Saelens, a typical community college has about 30% of their students who enroll declare the intent to transfer to a university, and typically that number only increases because students who didn’t originally intend on transferring ultimately do as well. 
  • You change your major. If your school no longer has the major you want, you may need to transfer colleges. 
  • Life changes. Life happens and that may necessitate a move, a change in employment, or a family situation that requires you to relocate. 
  • The college you’re at is not a good fit for you. Saelens says this is a situation that is more common than many college freshmen realize, and it’s not one to be ashamed of. “Sometimes, a school is just not a good fit for you,” he notes. “Recognizing that can be a smart move.”  

How to Transfer from Community College to University

If you’re looking to transfer from a community college to a four-year university, you’ll encounter a lot of benefits since community colleges are specifically designed to transfer students to higher-ed institutions. That means that there will be a lot of pros to transferring from community college, such as: 

Community college is designed for transfer students

This is the #1 reason Saelens recommends community colleges, because they are the only school that’s designed to help you transfer to another college. “That’s one of the main purposes of community colleges,” he notes. The big advantage for you is that community colleges have transfer agreements with four-year universities, so they are well-prepared and ready to guide transfer students through the process. And you’re more likely to have credits transfer equally so they aren’t wasted. 

You’re more likely to be admitted to a university

If you struggled with getting admitted to a university right off the bat, Saelens points out that you’re much more likely to get accepted once you have 1-2 years of college under your belt. This is a big advantage for people who may not have been accepted right out of high school. Additionally, some universities actively recruit community college grads, so you may get have special notice that the school is trying to recruit certain types of community college students.

You’ll typically save money

The cost savings of going to a community college for your first years vs. attending a 4-year university right out of high school can be significant. Typically, Saelens says, “you’ll save $20K or more per year by choosing community college first.” 

You’ll have more time to figure out what you want

According to Saelens, a whopping 85% of students will change their major at some points, so community college can be a great starting point to complete your general education courses. Then, if you change your mind, it’s easy (and more affordable!) to switch schools. “You’ll have a much better idea of what’s right for you after going through community college than right out of high school,” he points out. 

Are there any cons? 

There aren’t a whole lot of cons about transferring from community college to a larger university, since, again, they are actively designed for transfer students. However, you may run into the situation of “wasting” time at a community college based on your environment. 

For instance, Saelens notes that choosing a community college typically means staying in the same environment you were in during high school. So if there is anything to distract you or affect your ability to succeed in college in that environment, it may be a detriment. “Depending on your family dynamics and work situation, you may be less successful than you if you had removed yourself from those distractions,” he says. 

How long does it take?

“The exact transfer timeline varies, but it could be done in a couple months or less, depending on the college,” says Saelens. 

What are the requirements? 

As outlined before, you’ll want to follow these steps:

  1. Meet with an advisor
  2. Have your transcripts evaluated
  3. Get admitted
  4. Go through orientation
  5. Get registered

Again, you’ll want to apply as early as possible to facilitate the transfer process.

Transferring from One University to Another University

The process of transferring from one university to another university is the same as with a community college, but the main obstacle you may encounter is that universities are not set up specifically with transfer students in mind. 

That means that, depending on your school of choice, they may not be as familiar with transfer students and things like transferring credits. (Again, every school is different, and some may be more receptive to transfer students than others.)

Every school typically will accept a transfer student, but because university-to-university will not have a standard transfer agreement, all transfer students and their course credits will be handled individually. “There’s a lot less confidence in how your credits will match up, and the process might also take longer,” Saelens explains. 

That means that you’ll want to have a clear goal in mind, and speak to an advisor and get your application in as early as possible to ensure the transfer process goes as smoothly as possible. 

Can I Transfer My Online Credits to a University?

The process for transferring your online credits is the same as any on-campus credit. “Most colleges don’t differentiate if a class is online or not on a transcript,” Saelens explains. And if your school is an online-only school, it won’t affect transferring either, providing it’s an accredited school. 

When it comes to transferring, accreditation is the most important thing. He notes that there are six major regional accrediting bodies that most colleges and universities use, so if both schools (the one you’re at currently and the one you want to transfer to) are a part of that accreditation group, most will accept the credit. 

Outside of that, however, it’s evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In general, you’ll have less trouble transferring credits from larger, more well-known schools and may run into more trouble with smaller or more niche schools, like religious institutions.  

Athletic Transfers

If you’re a student athlete, you may end up transferring schools for a variety of reasons: maybe you’re transferring from a Division 2 school to a Division 1, or vice-a-versa. Maybe you find a better scholarship opportunity. Or maybe you can get more playing time or the team is a better fit elsewhere. Or perhaps you’re like other students and you’ve had a change of heart on your major.  

Saelens notes that he also sees a lot of students who come to a community college for the express purpose of playing the sport they love on a smaller scale. Even if they don’t end up playing the sport once they transfer on, they still have the opportunity for a scholarship and playing time at the community college level. 

How Much Does It Cost To Transfer Colleges?

In general, the cost to actually transfer schools is pretty minimal, you may run into some financial considerations along the way. Here’s what you need to know. 

Are There Any Fees to Transfer Colleges?

Usually, there isn’t a specific transfer fee to transfer colleges, says Saelens, although, of course, that can vary by individual school. The main upfront costs you’ll run into when transferring include: 

  • Any application costs for both the school itself and the program you’re entering into
  • Any costs associated with physically visiting the college, if that’s required
  • The cost of getting your transcripts from the school you’re at and any previously attended. The cost for this varies and can be anywhere from free to around $15. 

On top of any basic upfront fees, you’ll also need to be aware of the costs that may come with transferring, such as if you need to retake a class at the new school if your graders weren’t high enough. You’ll need to retake any class under a 2.0, notes Saelens, or if the new school doesn’t accept your transfer credits. 

Additionally, you could run into additional costs within your program. It’s important to realize that institution credits are not the same as program credits, and they may expire or not transfer into your exact degree program. For instance, if the school accepts your general education English class, but the program you’re enrolling in requires it to be a specific English class, you’ll still need to take those program requirements to qualify. 

Can Transferring Colleges Save Me Money?

The reason you’re transferring schools will really determine if there are any cost-savings for you. For instance, if your plan all along was to attend community college, then transfer to a university to earn your four-year degree, you can certainly save some money. 

However, if you’re transferring from one university to another because you changed your major and have to retake classes, you probably won’t see any cost savings. 

“Usually transferring isn’t a great way to save money because you might lose credits,” notes Saelens. However, he does add that it’s still possible, especially because you might be eligible for more financial aid or earn a scholarship specifically for transfer students. Yes, they do exist–even full-rides!

Should I Transfer Colleges?

Transferring colleges is a big step, but it’s also a pretty common one. There are many reasons you may need to transfer schools, and the most important thing is to have a clear reason for transferring and to speak with an advisor who can review your transcripts and let you know exactly what credits will transfer, and what classes you will need to take in your new degree program.  

FAQ

Can I always transfer college credits?

Not always. Most credits from accredited colleges and universities will transfer to another accredited college or university, but it’s up to the individual school. Credits from non-accredited schools may not credit directly. Additionally, institutional credit is not the same as program credit, so even if a school accepts your course credit, it may not transfer directly into your program of choice.

Does it cost money to transfer colleges?

There isn’t a direct transfer fee with most schools, but you will need to pay any application and transcript fees, as well as costs of any classes you need to take to enter your new program.

Is it easy to transfer colleges?

It depends on the school. Some schools, like community colleges, have transfer agreements and are designed to work with transfer students. For other schools, it may be less common.

Is starting at a community college worth it?

It depends on your goals and individual circumstances. If you’re not sure what major you want, can’t get admitted to your school of choice, or want to save money, a community college can be a great starter option.

Sources:

  1. https://www.aacu.org/aacu-news/newsletter/transfer-and-mobility-national-view-student-movements 
  2. https://www.mcc.edu/