Transfer Student Guide

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, approximately one third of students transfer from one school to another during their academic careers. And while students transfer all the time, the process of applying to a new school, transferring credits and renewing financial aid can seem complex and daunting. Not only are most transfer students transferring for the first time, but each school operates with its own transfer policies, sometimes on a departmental basis. It’s important to understand these policies before spending time on an application and even more important to understand the terms of transfer before committing to a new school.

Whether you’re considering transferring within the year or you’ve already started your applications, we’ve got everything you need to know about what to expect from the transfer process and how to minimize the losses of time, credits or cash you might incur along the way.

I. Why Students Transfer

There are plenty of reasons a student may choose to transfer. Many begin their studies at a less expensive community college and transfer to a four-year program after two years. Others might change majors part way through school and decide they prefer the program at another school. And of course, some students transfer because their circumstances have simply changed since they started college. Students may want to move to another city, pay less in tuition fees or find a program that allows them to maintain a full time job while they finish their degrees.

Community College Transfers

With student debt in the United States surpassing one trillion dollars, more students are opting to begin their undergraduate studies at a community college and plan on transferring to a four-year institution afterward. According to, community college tuition rates average 60 percent less than rates at public four-year institutions and 90 percent less than tuition at private four-year institutions. Community colleges also offer a lower-cost option for students to receive one-year or-two-year degrees. Today, 3.1 million students are enrolled in full-time, for-credit programs at U.S. community colleges.

Certain degree options, such as the associate of arts degree, are specifically designed for simple transfer to four-year institutions. If you are planning to obtain a bachelor’s after your associate degree, it is wise to pursue a degree in a field relevant to the bachelor’s you are working towards. Even if you do not intend to complete an associate program you are enrolled in ― transferring to a bachelor’s instead ― its a good idea to have a strong sense of the degree you are working towards. Most community colleges also offer general associate degrees and classes that can take the place of a four-year university’s general education requirements.

Transferring from a Four-Year Program

Of course many transfer students are those that chose to begin their bachelor’s right after high school. Most of us don’t know exactly what we want at 18 or 19, so it’s no surprise that 80 percent of students end up changing their majors at least once during their college years. Transferring is a popular option for those students who chose a school the first time around for a certain program only to switch majors later on.

Let’s say you are a student who began your studies at one university, only to realize the school does not offer a full degree in the field that now interests you the most. Looking to another university or college is an option, but, as is the case with transferring from a community college or trade school to a four-year program, it is crucial you know how credits will transfer. You especially want to confirm that a new school will accept core classes you have already completed; while general undergraduate requirements are more likely to be accepted, you may have a harder time transferring major-specific credits over.

This is the sort of tradeoff that must be considered, especially based on how much of an investment you feel you’ve made in the program you are already enrolled in.

II. How Transfer Credits Work

Transfer credits pertain to any credits earned at a university or community college that fulfill general requirements or count toward a degree at a second institution. It is common for community colleges and universities to have reciprocal agreements, which ensure the degree or credits earned at a community college are transferrable to a university within the same state.

Sometimes these agreements guarantee admissions to public four-year institutions within the state for transfer students who have obtained a two-year degree of a defined caliber. According to, states that subscribe to this rule include California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Many schools also offer dual-admissions agreements, allowing students to take certain courses ― typically core courses ― at a community college, either in-person or online, while attending a university.

Some schools, especially public schools, are part of articulation agreements. These are formal partnerships between two or more schools which outline the specific courses that will and will not transfer and count toward higher degrees. Participating in such programs allows students to begin their academic careers with the knowledge that their initial program can lead to further education when they are ready.

According to Washington Monthly, an estimated 30 percent of college dropouts would have completed their bachelor’s degree if they had started at a two-year college and then transferred. These students could have benefited from selecting a program that was part of an articulation or reciprocal agreement; they would have had the opportunity to begin their academic careers then move into a four-year setting when they were ready, without losing the credits they worked for.

If you attend a school that is not part of an articulation agreement, an academic advisor at your current or future school can identify transferable classes for you. Keep in mind that universities usually divide transfer credits into certain categories. For example, at Ohio State University transfer credits are classified into four categories:

  • General credit: According to OSU, general credit is awarded when a class may have an equivalent at the university, but this is indeterminable by the standard transfer evaluation system or Transfer Credit Evaluator. In these instances, individual academic department officials may review students’ transfer credits on a case-by-case basis.
  • Special credit: Special credits are allotted for classes with no true match at OSU and are often designated as elective credits. Since most universities require a certain number of elective credits, these special classes may not necessarily indicate lost time, money and effort on the part of the student pre-transfer.
  • Technical credit: Technical credit at OSU is awarded for technical coursework. Like the general and special credits, these too may count towards total credit hours, but must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they will count towards a specific degree.
  • Deferred credit: Deferred credits do not count toward a student’s overall credit hours at OSU or toward any specific degree program until they can be assessed further. This is because it is not possible for admissions officials to determine whether or not these classes had a match at OSU, or they seemed unacceptable as undergraduate credit. A transfer credit coordinator will review deferred credits to determine if they can be applied towards the new degree.

If you haven’t selected a school yet, and want to get an idea about how your credits may transfer, there are a number of excellent general guides available online.

III. Transfer Admissions Checklist

When evaluating a transfer student, admissions officers want to be sure the prospective student can handle the rigors of the university’s course load and succeed in their programs. A student’s performance at the college-level—in an associate, community or four-year setting—is the clearest indicator of a student’s collegiate aptitude. This is why for transfer students, post-secondary GPAs or transfer GPAs are significantly more important than high school GPAs in the admissions process.

With this in mind, students who want to transfer should concentrate on demonstrating aptitude early on. Take a full credit load whenever possible, perform well and choose courses most likely to be viewed favorably and accepted for credit by another school. That means taking survey courses in core subject areas like English, math and the sciences as opposed to highly specific interdisciplinary courses that may not be offered at other schools. The better you do now, the better your position will be to gain admission and higher standing in the program of your choice.

Once you do decide to transfer, following a few rules of thumb can reduce pressure, costs and headache later on:

  1. Confirm the accreditation status of both current and prospective schools.If you know you will be transferring colleges during your academic career, it is essential that you make sure you receive your credits from an accredited school. Find accredited schools and for-credit internships using this database of accredited postsecondary programs provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Otherwise, you may face the unhappy realization that your time and money spent were all for naught when it comes time to earn a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Request and review your current transcripts to identify transferable credits.Regardless of where you received your initial college credits, you need to request a transcript proving the credits for specific courses you earned. You will then send the transcript to the university you hope to transfer to so admissions staff can determine your class standing upon enrollment, your transfer GPA and course equivalency for the transferred classes. Sometimes you may be required to submit a list of course descriptions as well to assist in the course equivalency evaluation process.
  3. Confirm transfer credits with both the school’s admissions office and the department that offers your program.Transfer credits are often accepted on a department basis. In these cases, it is up to the academic advisors of specific programs (e.g. Arts and Letters or Agricultural Sciences) to decide whether or not your course credits are truly equivalent to those offered by their departments. Contact the department before applying to ensure you have completed courses they accept and that you do not have any gaps in your education according to their degree requirements. Comparing the programs’ base courses to the ones you have already taken can help you decide if this is the right path for you.As mentioned in the OSU example, some universities mandate that a student must complete a certain number of credits at their graduating school in order to qualify for the awarded degree. Even if your transfer credits satisfy certain course requirements of your program, you may need to complete additional electives.
  4. If you want to transfer to an out-of-state public school, establish residency in that state. Most states charge significantly more for out-of-state tuition than for state resident tuition. For a PDF of each state’s residency requirements, visit Most states require a student to have lived in the state, held a job and paid taxes without attending school for at least one year in order to obtain residency and take advantage of in-state tuition rates.
  5. Confirm application materials and deadlines specific to transfer students.Academic advisors from your prospective schools will provide information regarding the application process. Keep in mind that deadlines for transfer students are usually later than those for first-year students. Transfer applications are typically due in the spring, sometime around March or April. Others may have an extended deadline as late as mid-summer. Knowing when your application is due allows you time to complete any courses your new school or program may require or prefer. Some programs will offer you admission contingent on the completion of certain courses before your enrollment date.

IV. Financial Aid and Awards

The financial aid application process for transfer students works much the same way it does for non-transfer students. You still need to complete a FAFSA form to be considered for all federal loans and state aid, which you can find here.

The New York Times cites a report from 2010 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, noting that nearly 23 percent of colleges do not award merit aid to transfer students. Even colleges that agree to give 100 percent of the determined financial aid value to freshmen do not necessarily extend the same policy to transfer students.

As with the FAFSA, you will likely have to reapply for certain scholarships whenever you transfer into a new school. It is wise to check with the organization or party granting the scholarship beforehand to ensure there are no restrictions regarding transfers or limiting your attendance to certain schools.

Transfer Scholarships

There are also a variety of scholarships available for transfer students. We have identified three with general appeal to transfer students; each should give you an idea of the opportunities that, as a transfer student, you need to seriously consider.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation: This foundation offers up to $30,000 a year for students transferring from a community college to a four-year institution. This scholarship requires students to have a transfer GPA of 3.5 or better. The application for 2015 will open in September, and you can elect to be alerted when it does via the JKCF site.

Tau Sigma National Honor Society Transfer Scholarships: TSNHS offers scholarships to students transferring from a community college to a four-year school in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. According to the organization’s website, local chapter advisors determine the application deadlines and assist students in submitting the applications. This scholarship organization offers two $2,500 and $2,000 scholarships, eight $1,500 scholarships, 11 $1,000 scholarships, 16 $750 scholarships and 15 scholarships of $500 each year.

The Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society Transfer Scholarships: These scholarships are awarded to students transferring from a community college to an accredited university. The various scholarships available to Phi Theta Kappa members are also listed on the website, along with instructions on how to apply. Scholarships are applicable to over 735 four-year schools.

V. Key Takeaways

  • In order to transfer as easily as possible, remember to plan ahead. If you have some idea of the major you want to pursue for your bachelor’s degree, take classes relevant to that field from the beginning.
  • Make sure you choose classes that are likely to transfer. Use the transfer guides and other resources, such as an appointment with your admissions counselor, to determine the transferrable classes that will contribute the most to your overall academic plan.
  • Take advantage of transfer-specific scholarships and transfer agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions in order to save money.
  • Most importantly, relax. Approximately one third of U.S. students transfer at some point in their academic careers. There are plenty of resources available online and on campus to assist you in the process.