The Transfer Student’s Guide to Selecting an Online College

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 37.2% of new freshmen from fall 2008 transferred schools by 2014. Clearly quite common, transfers occur for multiple reasons. Students may transfer from a community college to earn a bachelor's, they may transfer between four-year schools due to work or military relocation, or they may transfer because of tuition rates. Another reason for transfers involves a change of academic interests. For instance, a student may enter a four-year school with a notable biology program, but she may change her major to computer science. The student might then transfer to a school with a renowned computer science program.

This page examines key aspects and concerns related to transfers between any two schools, including school policies, course equivalency, and accreditation.

Degree seekers should consider several program elements to find the best option for them: pertinent majors and concentrations that relate to career goals, tuition rates and program costs, and course flexibility. Students looking for online degree transfer credits should also examine schools' transfer policies.

  1. Transfer Policies: Students should compare schools' transfer policies to find the option that best utilizes previously earned credits. Some departments, for example, may not accept any transfer credits. Institutions may also require different steps for earning credit for transferred classes, such as waiver forms. This article covers transfer details in more depth below.
  2. School Size and Type: Some students want to learn in a community setting that encourages one-on-one interaction with peers and professors. These candidates can choose smaller colleges. Private institutions may also blend academics with unique values, such as Catholicism, or they may provide a more general public education. Other learners may prefer the broader offerings available at public institutions.
  3. Program Delivery: Candidates should consider their preferred program delivery based on their scheduling needs. As an example, degree seekers who need maximum flexibility should explore programs with asynchronous courses that allow them to complete their work at any time. Learners may also look for full-time programs that allow them to finish quickly or part-time options that allow them to take smaller course loads each term.
  4. On-Campus Requirements: Some programs require students to visit campus for courses, labs, orientation, or workshops. Candidates willing to fulfill these components should consider the location of the school. Degree seekers, for example, may easily manage one in-state visit before graduation, but they may decide against multiple out-of-state residencies each term.
  5. Program Reputation: To determine a program's value, candidates should consider student retention rates, graduation rates, and alumni employment statistics. Future employers and schools may also place more confidence in degrees from renowned schools, particularly accredited institutions. This confidence increases learners' chances for employment and admission into future programs.

When transferring from an online college to a new university, prospective students should research individual transfer policies. Schools often insist that students earn a minimum grade for transfer credits, or they may only allow a certain number of transfer credits. Some institutions may also provide an online tool that estimates how a department transfers credits. Learners who explore these details can find the school that makes the most of their previous coursework in as few steps as possible.

Transferrable Credits

In general, in-state transfers between public schools provide the simplest options for online college classes that transfer. These transfers also tend to lead to the most accepted credits. In fact, some public colleges offer automatic acceptance for credits that students complete at in-state community colleges. Overall, however, schools review transcripts to determine which courses they accept, making each transfer opportunity unique. Factors that schools use in these reviews include course equivalencies, course level, and credit format.

Course Equivalency: Course equivalency means that courses match from one school to another. For instance, if a student's outgoing and incoming institutions offer introductory algebra, a transferred introductory algebra course generally fulfills a math requirement. A class with no equivalent at the incoming school may only transfer as an elective or not at all.

Course Level: Course equivalency relates to course level. For instance, most colleges and universities offer an introductory English course, but fewer institutions deliver an upper-level class on fantasy writing. This fantasy course, then, would likely transfer as an elective, while the introductory course could fulfill a general education requirement. For this reason, learners may want to explore only online colleges that accept all transfer credits, or they may want to ask schools how different course levels transfer for program credit.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Schools grant quarter or semester credit depending on class duration and experiences. The semester format often includes spring and fall terms, while quarter-based schools include four terms every year. Quarter semesters may also involve more weekly in-class attendance for one class. Generally, students can convert quarter credits to semester credits by dividing quarter credits by 1.5. However, each school lists its own transfer policy. Students should always ask how online college credits apply to schools with different credit formats.

Academic Residency Requirements and Online College Transfers

Some programs insist that students fulfill a percentage of requirements at the school that will award the degree. For example, a learner who transfers from a two-year to a four-year institution may need to complete 75% of program courses at the four-year college. This residency component typically does not mandate on-campus attendance, so learners can fulfill this requirement through online courses. Degree seekers should research transfer and residency policies for schools long before transferring. Without tending to this step, candidates can earn a high number of credits that do not apply to their degrees.

Accreditation is a key element for an online school, especially when considering transferring credits. Accredited institutions do not accept credit from unaccredited schools. Also consider whether a school's accreditation is regional or national. Schools accredited by a lenient granting body may leave you with useless credit hours. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a directory of reputable accredited programs; make sure your school appears in the list, or you might risk wasting your time and money.

National and Regional Accreditation: What's the Difference?

Accreditation verifies a school's academic standards since it means an accrediting agency believes the college provides a solid education. Accrediting agencies hold the approval of higher organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Federal aid only extends to learners at schools with accreditation. Furthermore, degrees from unaccredited schools may not assist graduates in gaining employment. For these reasons, degree seekers should only consider accredited institutions.

Learners can pursue schools with national or regional accreditation. National accreditation reaches across the nation, but involves more lenient requirements. For-profit schools often hold national accreditation. Regional accreditation applies to certain geographic areas and involves higher standards than national accreditation. Eighty-five percent of colleges hold this accreditation type. Most universities list a regional accreditor for their primary accreditation. Two of the six regional accreditors include the Higher Learning Commission and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Programs can also hold specialized accreditation, which means a field-related organization believes the program prepares for success in the discipline. For instance, business programs may hold accreditation from the International Accreditation Council for Business Education. This type of accreditation may not impact transfer credits. In particular, transfer students should consider regionally accredited schools since these institutions provide more online college classes that transfer. Classes taken at nationally accredited schools may only transfer to other nationally accredited institutions.

Students can earn program credit for relevant out-of-classroom experiences, such as workplace or military experience. Departments allow these credits due to the understanding and skills learners obtain during real-world pursuits. Candidates may need to verify the knowledge they gained through these experiences by passing exams or submitting portfolios.

Other experiences that can lead to program credit include independent studies, training, certifications, volunteer opportunities, and examinations. When possible, students should pursue these credit paths for a quicker, cheaper graduation date.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning provides four methods of prior learning assessment (PLA) to determine if a student's real-world experience can substitute for coursework.

Standardized Exams: Standardized examinations evaluate learners' understanding of relevant concepts. Students typically pay a fee to take these tests. The standardized format allows schools to compare results from test-takers in various areas. Possible exams include the College Level Exam Program tests, advanced placement exams, Excelsior College evaluations, and the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests. Universities may require degree seekers to earn minimum scores on these exams and may insist on scores from within a certain time period.

Challenge Exams: Learners take these assessments to prove that they understand course content without actually completing the course. For instance, a businessman may gain credit by passing an introductory-level business exam. However, some schools may place conditions on challenge exam credit. As an example, colleges can prohibit challenge exams for core classes.

Individual Assessments: Credit by individual assessment means a student provides evidence of the knowledge and skills he/she developed during previous experiences. This process might include a demonstration or interview. More commonly, learners submit a portfolio that faculty review to determine if a degree seeker can earn credit for the experience.

Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training: Organizations such as the American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service assess a student's military, volunteer, or workplace training to determine if his/her experiences merit academic credit. This process costs a fee, but it allows candidates with relevant certifications, licenses, and skills to graduate quickly.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Some schools award PLA credits after students demonstrate knowledge of course concepts. Other institutions waive courses.

If their school awards PLA credits, students should consider the type of coursework their professional, military, civic, volunteer, and field experiences fulfill. For instance, some departments may apply PLA credits toward a core class, whereas other programs may use those credits only for general education coursework or electives. By understanding how the experience applies, candidates can decide if pursuing PLA credits impacts program completion. A student who only needs core classes to graduate can decide against striving for PLA credits that would only count as electives.

Degree seekers should consult their transfer school to determine if any previous experience can earn program credits. They should also research the school's process for earning PLA credits or course waivers. Finally, they should locate any transfer policies that would limit credit opportunities.