Transfer students tend to lose 40% of their credit when making the switch to university. But it’s not because of subpar coursework and certainly not because their new university is a big bully. It’s usually because the student didn’t take the right credit in the first place.
Yes… getting a degree is more complicated than simply passing college-level coursework. It involves passing the right college-level coursework. And since colleges don’t universally agree on what the “right” coursework is, transferring between a community college and university can be challenging, to say the least.
But it’s not impossible. And I’m here to show you how to do it (even though I personally think you’d be better off trading in community college for Accelerated Pathways—which I intend to shamelessly plug at the end of this post).
Pulling off a successful stint at community college starts where every other college decision should start: knowing what you want.
All too often, students seeking a cheaper alternative to college enroll in an eye-catching associate degree program before considering what bachelor’s degree they want. This isn’t a great idea. While community colleges are less expensive than university, community college advisors aren’t equipped to tell you what will transfer and what won’t. Their only job is to deliver what you ask for. That means if you ask for the wrong thing (i.e. an associate degree that doesn’t actually line up properly with your future goals) you’re in for some serious disappointment a couple of years later.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, college degrees are structured very specifically. Earning a B.A. in English requires you to take different courses than you would to earn a B.A. in Business Management. Makes sense, right? But what’s more—earning a B.A. in English from Stanford University will also require different courses than earning a B.A. in English from NYU.
That’s right. It’s not just degrees that differ in course requirements, each college does too.
So before contacting your local community college, first decide what degree you want and where you want to graduate from. This—admittedly—is a monster of a task in and of itself. (If you want some help with it, I recommend our free ebook What Should I Major In?)
Then you’ll need to know what’s required to earn that specific degree from that specific school. What kinds of courses do you need? What subject? What specificity? What level? Check the college’s website for this information. If you’ve never done this research before, it may feel like drinking from a fire hose. Our a crash course on college course codes may help.
Once you understand what degree you want, where you want to earn it from, and your degree’s specific college credit requirements, only then can you can begin researching which of those credits you can transfer from a community college.
Most colleges only allow students to transfer in a certain amount of outside credit, so do a quick search on their website to find out how much outside credit your university allows. This will tell you the maximum amount of credit you should be looking to earn from your community college. Taking anything beyond this maximum will be a waste of your time and money.
The next thing to consider is whether your chosen university and community college actually work well together. Because of those pesky disagreements over course-requirements, earning a 2-year associate degree does not automatically mean you’re halfway done with your bachelor’s. This is one of the most common mistakes community college graduates make. You can only transfer a full associate degree into a bachelor’s degree program if that university and community college have a very good, pre-existing transfer agreement.
That’s why it’s important to understand what kind of transfer agreement your chosen community college has with your chosen university. These policies tend to come in 4 varieties with varying levels of transferability: no relationship, general articulation agreement, general education articulation, and degree-to-degree. The better the transfer agreement, the safer your community college credit is. Let’s take a quick look to understand what each of these means.
Most likely, the two colleges you’re evaluating will have no transfer relationship whatsoever. This doesn’t mean you can’t transfer your community college credits to your university, but it does mean the process will be tougher.
When two colleges have no pre-existing transfer agreement, each of the courses you attempt to transfer will have to be evaluated individually. The university in question will have to dig into the courses you took—their course codes, names, descriptions, syllabi, etc.—to determine whether they meet the requirements for bachelor’s degree completion. Some courses will match, others won’t.
Colleges that are unlikely to have transfer agreements:
Community colleges and private schools
Colleges in different states
Schools that are very far apart
In the case of general articulation agreements, the university has already done the course content evaluations we talked about in the previous section and they already know which of the community college’s courses lineup with their own standards and which don’t. But that’s as far as their relationship goes.
This can be thought of as a “course-to-course” agreement: the university in question only accepts courses into their bachelor’s degree program individually, but they at least know beforehand which are eligible and which aren’t.
A general education agreement is the next level up from course-to-course. This kind of agreement means your university has enough of a relationship with the community college to accept all of your general education credits without question.
No checking course information, no figuring out if the courses line up. With this kind of agreement, as long as the credit you’ve taken at your community college falls into the “general education” category, it’s guaranteed to transfer to your university. Total win.
A degree-to-degree agreement is the absolute best community college transfer situation, and it’s typically what everyone expects when enrolling in community college. This kind of agreement means the full associate degree you earn at your community college is guaranteed to transfer into your university’s bachelor’s degree.
Yes, this kind of agreement does exist. It’s great when it happens. But it’s very, very rare. Usually, if a degree-to-degree agreement exists, it will be between a community college and a state school, with the community college acting as a “feeder school” for the university in question.
When researching the transfer agreements between your community college and your university, pay attention to which kind of agreement these schools have. The better the relationship, the more guarantee your credit will transfer.
Once you know what bachelor’s degree you want, what school you want to get it from, which community college is the best choice for your chosen university, and what kind of transfer agreement the two schools have, it’s time to put your plan together.
This is the part that, unfortunately, I can’t coach you through. Every university and degree requirement is so different that you’ll probably be spending a significant amount of time researching, thinking, and trouble-shooting as you try to understand which community college courses are “safe” and which aren’t.
Fortunately, while I can’t coach you through this step, you’re not completely alone. Once you’ve done your absolute best to build your credit-transfer plan, you can take this plan to your chosen university’s college advisor to ensure your plan will actually work.
Note that I said your university’s advisor, not your community college’s advisor. A community college advisor cannot help you with this step. As I mentioned earlier, their job isn’t to help you transfer credit between colleges, it’s to enroll you in an associate degree program, so asking them for credit-transfer advice will be fruitless and frustrating. Instead, talk to an advisor at the university you want to graduate from. Have them review your plan and tell you whether or not these courses will transfer.
There’s one more thing to keep in mind during this step: while talking to an advisor will certainly give you the best bet at a well-made plan, things change. College policies change and the community college course you enroll in this semester may no longer be accepted at your university in 2 years. Your university advisor will be able to greenlight your plan based on the current state of the college’s transfer policy, but if it changes… that’s just really unfortunate for you.
While such changes aren’t necessarily likely—especially if you’re sticking with earning more general courses—just know it can happen. And if it does, it’s not your advisor’s fault. It’s just the way these things work.
Now you may have an idea why I said transferring from community college to university is possible, but not easy. This kind of research takes a long time, is confusing as heck, and in the end you’re still just guessing.
Unfortunately, skipping out on this research phase isn’t advised—unless you want to risk being one of the 40% we mentioned earlier. But I have good news for you: there is one way you can get out of it. Let us help. (Time for the plug!)
At Pearson, we help students use transfer credit to mimic the cost-savings of a community college. But we take it one step further. 94% of Accelerated Pathways graduates earn their degrees 100% debt free.
We’re credit transfer experts, equipped with over a decade of experience transferring credit to and from hundreds of colleges. My point? We can guarantee with confidence that the affordable, online courses you take through us will, in fact, transfer to the college of your choice (or your money back… plus some). All without you lifting a finger.
After taking time to discuss your goals and plans, and how your college degree can help you achieve them, our Accelerated Pathways advisors will help you craft your own fully-customized degree, selecting the most affordable school(s) and courses to meet your goals. With our help, you’ll end up graduating with a debt-free degree that’s not only perfectly tailored to your budget, but also your lifestyle. Learn more about Accelerated Pathways by clicking here.
Whether you let us help or decide to go it alone, you’re already off on the right foot. The best (and only) way to ensure a smooth transfer from community college to university is by knowing what you want and planning ahead. So keep reading up, learning all you can, doing your research, so you can get the clearest picture of where you want to go. That will give you the best shot at getting there as efficiently as possible.
You’ve got this!
A former student counselor and Accelerated Pathways student, Abigail is now a writer and Accelerated Pathways Content Manger who's passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not hard at work, you can find her reading, baking cupcakes, or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.