You’ve done it! You enrolled in the college of your choice on National Decision Day, submitted the final paperwork, and (gulp) made the first payments. 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, ~2.2 million students transferred from one school to another in the academic year 2019-20, per the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The Covid pandemic brought that number down by about 200,000 transfers in its first year, but once pandemic-related restrictions began to be lifted, transfers ticked back up.
Students transfer for many reasons:
- A change of degree choices
- Life circumstances
- Personal fit or preference
- Athletic endeavors
- Many more
Transferring colleges isn’t necessarily difficult; it’s just time-consuming! Essentially, you’re applying to college all over again—but this time you’re asking the new college to take your existing college credits, too.
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: 7-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. Let’s review the basics via our quick 7-step guide, then we’ll break some of the steps down a bit further!
Before you transfer colleges, here are the steps you need to take to make it happen:
- Step 1: Know your why
- Step 2: Choose your school
- Step 3: Research your next school’s transfer policies
- Step 4: Talk to an advisor and the financial aid office
- Step 5: Apply to the school
- Step 6: Follow through if accepted
- Step 7: Move!
The first step is figuring out why you want to transfer! You should have a clear reason for leaving your current school; it can’t just be a whim or to escape a temporary problem.
Whatever the reason or reasons are, write them out clearly…then do your homework to make sure the next school won’t present you with the exact same reasons—or worse yet, even more reasons to want to leave.
Next, pin down which college you want to transfer to. Essentially, you’re doing a school search from scratch, but at least now you’re probably looking for more specific things that you want (or don’t want).
Read online reviews, join discussion forums, reach out to current students and alumni, do a campus tour… Basically, do whatever it takes to ensure your next college is a suitable match, because you don’t want to have to transfer again later.
Double-check that both the school AND the program you’ll be applying for are a good fit for you.
If you’re considering going to school in a different state, keep in mind that out-of-state tuition can be vastly more expensive!
Once you’ve decided which school you want to transfer to, it’s time to review their transfer policies very carefully. This is pretty straightforward because schools want to make it easy for students to transfer. They all list their transfer policies on their website, sometimes on one of the dropdown menus on their home page.
If you don’t see a link there, locate the search bar (usually identifiable as a tiny magnifying glass icon) and type in “transfer” or “transfer students.” If that still doesn’t work, go back to your internet browser and just type the name of the school and the term “transfer student” or “transfer policy.” As a last resort, you can call the admissions department to see what is needed for you to transfer.
Eventually, you’ll find what you’re looking for—their credit transfer policies and any other requirements. Note that not every school is going to accept all of your previously earned credits. That may (and probably will) mean you’ll have to retake those courses, or their equivalents, at the new school.
Don’t forget to research the new school area’s cost of living, housing situation, local activities, transportation options, and any other circumstances relevant to your preferred lifestyle.
Before you do anything else, talk to your academic advisor. Let them know your intentions and ask for any advice they may have. They might try to talk you out of it, but remember, it’s your decision.
Note, if you prefer, you can talk to your advisor before doing the previous steps…but by doing some initial research first, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you’ve put some thought and research into it, and it isn’t just a spur-of-the-moment thing.
Once you’ve made up your mind, your advisor can help connect you with other campus officers or resources that need to be part of the transfer, such as the financial aid office or registrar.
Indeed, you should speak to the financial aid offices at both schools (your current one and projected one), especially if you’re on a scholarship or receiving federal aid. Depending on when you plan to transfer, you may have to fill out a new FAFSA while you’re at it.
Before you apply, also try to speak with an advisor at the new school and in the program you’re going to transfer to. They may have additional insights about transfer credits or other questions you may have.
The real fun kicks in when you start applying!
Make sure you know the projected school’s application deadline and that you have enough time to get your ducks in a row. You’ll need to submit all the documents they request, such as official copies of your current college transcripts…which can take time to order and ship.
There may also be essays to write, new letters of recommendation to obtain, test scores, etc. If there is any confusion about the requirements listed online, contact the new school’s admissions office immediately.
In addition, there could be new scholarship opportunities to apply for, so make sure you know those deadlines and requirements, too!
If accepted to the new school, pay close attention to any steps listed in the acceptance letter. Make sure you understand which credits were transferred and which you might have to make up.
You’ll also need to tell your current school that your transfer was accepted. If you’re already enrolled in upcoming courses, be sure to withdraw by the deadlines.
After you’ve completed the above steps, it’s time to pack up and move! You’ll also have to register for classes, either before you move or once you get to your next destination. It’s generally wise to register as early as possible, so you can get into the courses you want.
Once you’ve arrived and settled in, make sure to do the new student orientation and get familiar with the campus.
Okay, now, as promised, we’ll break some of these steps down even further… Some of it may seem a bit redundant, but we just don’t want you to miss anything!
What Do I Need To Transfer Colleges or College Credits?
You’ll need to gather all the materials to make the switch happen. This can include:
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 its 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.
How To Transfer College Credits From One College To Another
It’s up to the gaining school to decide which transfer credits they will accept or not. If your current school is not accredited, that could be an issue. Accredited school credits are much more likely to transfer.
By the same token, if you’re in a STEM program, then its ABET accreditation standing may be a factor.
Things also depend on your grades for each course you’re trying to transfer! Some schools won’t be too picky, but others might only accept credit for transfer if your grade is “good enough” for their standard. If they’re known for being an academically rigorous institution, grades will probably matter. In fact, some schools are notorious for not counting certain community college credits.
Yet another common factor is how old the credit is. This is particularly important for courses on topics that change a lot, such as information technology. In other words, an older history course credit may have better odds of getting accepted than an old computer science class credit.
Some schools are eager to gain transfer students, so they have much more lenient policies. They don’t care as much about how relevant a transfer course is to the program you’re applying to; they just want you as a student!
But more selective schools—which may have far more applicants than they have seats—can afford to be far more strict. Of course, there’s probably a reason why everyone’s trying to get into those choosy schools. Maybe they have better programs and better reputations for post-graduation career prospects.
Long story short, the number of transfer credits that a gaining school will accept should not be the sole factor for deciding to go there or not. Sometimes it is worthwhile to just do some makeup classes if that’s what it takes to get into the best school. However, that isn’t always possible due to economic reasons or time constraints. Talk to an advisor to get some feedback if you anticipate problems and need help deciding what to do.
Lastly, many schools have online tools to help you calculate which credits will transfer, but the admissions office is your best bet. They may work in conjunction with the registrar’s office to evaluate courses you’ve previously taken and compare them to what their school offers.
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 admissions 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.
The main reasons to apply as early are limited enrollment spots, financial aid opportunities, and, of course, admission deadlines!
Why Do Students Transfer Colleges?
Again, there are many reasons why people transfer colleges. For example, maybe you want or need to transfer because…
- Your current area is too expensive or doesn’t have part-time job opportunities
- You want to change majors but your current school doesn’t have a program (or another school has a better one)
- Your current campus doesn’t match your lifestyle
- You must move due to reasons beyond your control (such as a military change of duty station)
How to Transfer from Community College to University FAQ
Need to transfer from a community college to a four-year university?
If so, you’re in luck because community colleges are specifically designed to prepare and then transfer students to higher-ed institutions. Thus, there are plenty of benefits to making such a move. Let’s look at a few!
Community college is designed for transfer students
The #1 reason Saelens recommends community colleges is because they are the only schools 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.
But keep in mind that some universities are very picky about which community college credits they accept. Don’t make any assumptions. Do your research and find out which ones will transfer and which won’t. Otherwise, you might end up having to retake more classes than you expected.
As AP News writes, one of the “biggest obstacles [for students transferring from community college to a university] is credit loss.”
You’re more likely to be admitted to a university
Did you apply to a four-year college or university while in high school or soon after graduation? If so, did you struggle to get accepted into a school you wanted?
If you weren’t accepted at the time, don’t give up! Knocking out a year or two at a community college can give your next college application a major boost!
It not only offers you a chance to beef up your GPA from whatever you had in high school but also sends a clear signal to any future school that you’re committed to postsecondary educational success. In other words, it shows them you can do well beyond high school.
Additionally, many local colleges and universities actively recruit community college grads. That means you may get a special heads-up when the school is trying to recruit students from your community college. Again, just make sure your credits are transferable!
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—IF you take community college classes that will transfer.
In addition, many four-year schools make freshmen live on campus. For some students, that isn’t cost-effective, especially if they’d rather stay with their parents or friends off-campus.
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 point. “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. This is particularly true for those going to community college as a starting point to complete general education courses.
Smaller class sizes = better teacher/student ratios
Sometimes students need extra support when starting their higher academic journey. Alas, the four-year college experience isn’t designed to offer such direct support, at least not in the packed classrooms where professors may have 100-200 students! But once you’ve gotten the hang of college in a smaller setting, you’ll be better prepared to transfer.
Are there any cons of switching from a community college to a university?
There aren’t a whole lot of cons about transferring from community college to a university since, again, they are actively designed for transfer students. But the one glaring con is credit loss if your transfer school is too picky about which community college credits it’ll take.
As Jessie Ryan, VP of the Campaign for College Opportunity writes, “These systems have been designed to work for colleges and educators, but they haven’t been designed to work for students.” And not all community college advisors have enough experience to properly advise students about which of their school’s classes will or won’t transfer elsewhere.
How long does it take?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question!
When it comes to transferring colleges, there are many variables, such as how many credits you complete at community college, how many of those are transferable to your four-year school, whether or not you have to meet any prerequisites to enter into the next school’s major program, and, of course, whether you meet application deadlines for the year you want to transfer.
It definitely requires planning ahead (ideally at least a year ahead) so that you can have a smooth transition from your last community college term to your first four-year college/university term!
What are the requirements?
As outlined before, you’ll want to follow these steps when transferring colleges:
Decide why you want to transfer
Make a list of the schools you may want to transfer to
Research the schools and their programs to ensure you’re a good fit (and are qualified to transfer)
Talk to academic advisors and the financial aid offices at both schools
Apply to the schools you want to transfer to
Follow through, if accepted (to include doing orientation)
Get registered and move!
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 pretty much the same as with a community college (see full list above).
However, unlike community colleges, four-year colleges and universities are NOT set up specifically with transfer students in mind. Yes, they allow it and know it happens a lot. But ideally, every school wants to keep as many students as they can. And not every school is as keen to receive transfer students as others.
For example, it’s commonly reported that trying to transfer to an Ivy League school is even harder than getting accepted into one as a freshman—and that’s pretty hard! Other selective top-rated schools with low admissions rates may also be harder to crack.
For this reason, we suggest not putting all of your eggs in that basket. Consider applying to more than one transfer school and do your best to demonstrate that you have valid reasons for wanting or needing to transfer.
“Valid” reasons might include such things as:
- Needing to relocate (perhaps because of a job or, if living with parents, one of their jobs)
- Can’t afford the tuition or cost of living in the current area
- The current college doesn’t offer the desired major
- You are dissatisfied with your current school for specific reasons you can articulate that won’t be a problem at this new school
- Required athletic or active duty military transfer or move
Keep in mind, if you transfer out-of-state, then your cost savings might go out the window. Out-of-state tuition rates are much higher than in-state, so you may have to establish residency in the new state first to qualify for the in-state rate. Sometimes this simply isn’t worth it, plus not all states allow for this anyhow. State policies regarding in-state tuition can get tricky, so do your homework! For online schools, double-check with the school to ensure which rate you’d get.
Not, in some cases, there’s a caveat that exempts students from paying out-of-state tuition (such as a military student, veteran, or military dependent covered under the GI Bill or Veteran Readiness and Employment program). Again, each state has its own policies, so always double-check with the admissions and financial aid offices about how a transfer would affect your payments.
In addition, some scholarships won’t transfer, either. For example, if you got a local or state scholarship that is eligible to renew every year, but then you decide to leave the state, odds are you won’t be able to renew it.
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 community colleges or other smaller schools.
If you’re a student-athlete, you may end up transferring schools for a variety of reasons related to your sport.
You might want to transfer to a better conference or team, play for a different coach, get a better scholarship offer, or want more time playing. Or maybe you simply want to transfer for one of the other reasons why students transfer!
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?
The cost to actually transfer schools can vary. 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, but it depends on the 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.
You’ll also have to pay for any classes you must retake if the new school doesn’t accept all of your credits.
Additionally, keep in mind that institution credits are not the same as program credits. They may expire or not transfer into your new 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 and then transfer to a university to earn your four-year degree, you can certainly save some money—IF the new school takes all of your credits. If they don’t, that will cut into your cost savings (and potentially cost you more in the long run). It’ll also add more time to how long it takes to complete your degree.
Meanwhile, if you’re transferring to change majors and have to retake classes, you probably won’t see any cost savings. You also won’t save any money if you change states and have to pay out-of-state tuition at the new school.
With all that said, transferring could make you eligible for more financial aid or scholarships. Ultimately, transferring can save money in some cases, but not always!
Should I Transfer Colleges?
Transferring colleges is a big step, but it’s also a pretty common one.
There are many reasons you may want or 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 which credits will transfer and what classes you will need to take in your new degree program.
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 be credited 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 the 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.