Transferring from a community college to a bachelor’s program: Six tips for success
Should I transfer colleges? This is a common, but daunting question that many community college students ask themselves after experiencing what college life feels like. Attending community college is a popular starting point for many students who plan to complete their degree at a four-year college or university. If you fit into that description, then you know there can be many good reasons for taking this path.
Maybe you see it as a way to save money. After all, it could be great to get some of your college coursework (especially general education classes) out of the way at a two-year college, where you may pay less per credit hour than you would at your destination college. Or perhaps you’re not sure what kind of career you want to pursue, so you’re using community college courses to explore your options before choosing a major. Or you might have the sense that you need to brush up on your study skills before you tackle the academic load of a four-year school.
Whatever the reason, if you’re planning to begin your online college application and transfer from a community college to a four-year college, you need to plan that transition carefully. What confuses most students is that there is more to the process than finding a way to simply transfer credit from one university to the other. Only a small percentage of community college students who intend to get a bachelor’s degree actually do so within six years. There are numerous reasons for this, including financial struggles and substantial family commitments. But here’s the bottom line: If you want to transfer credit from a community college and complete a four-year degree, you’ll need to make a plan. The transfer process can be challenging, but you can do it. After all, community college students are known for being practical, focused and down-to-earth, so this is definitely in your wheelhouse.
It's best to make your transfer plan as soon as possible, ideally before you take your first community college class... but that’s not always realistic. Here are six tips that can help lay the groundwork for a smooth transition, wherever you stand on the transfer pathway.
How to transfer from community college
1. Remember: Knowledge is power. Before we begin, let’s be crystal clear. Despite the information you may have heard, you don’t need to get your associate’s degree before transferring into a four-year school. “You can transfer at any time!” says Nick DeFalco, director of transfer admission at North Central College. “Of course, if you want to get your associate degree first, that’s totally fine. But it's important to understand that it’s not necessary.” In fact, if you take the associate’s-degree-first route, you may enroll in courses that won’t count towards your major at your new institution (also known as the receiving institution). “Just because you’ve completed two years at a community college doesn’t necessarily mean that you will enter the receiving institution with only two years left until graduation,” notes DeFalco.
2. Narrow down your choices. Decide which four-year school you want to transfer into. Then, learn all you can about the institution, which includes visiting the school, talking to its transfer counselors, and finding out what kinds of financial aid are available to you.
You’ll probably find that some schools are more transfer-friendly than others. Whether it is a college’s flexibility with transferring community college credits, transparent deadlines and openness to accepting community college transfer students, there are many factors to consider when transferring At North Central College, for instance, about a third of all students are transfers – so it's no surprise that the institution has fine-tuned the process and provides exactly what a transfer student needs. The college is also nationally recognized for the assistance it provides to first-generation college students.North Central offers mentors through its Association of Commuter and Transfer Students and academic seminars tailored specifically for transfer students, so you can easily get to know other students who have taken a similar path. It's important to notice that Phi Theta Kappa (an honor society for community college students) includes the institution on its honor roll.
3. Make your courses count. Find out which of your community college courses will count toward your degree at your target four-year school. This is absolutely crucial. Why? Because if you don’t do this first, you could take two years of community college courses … and still enter your destination school with more than two years left to graduate. Knowing which courses will count toward your four-year degree – and what grade you need to earn in those courses in order to claim that college credit – can save you a large amount of time, money and frustration in the long run. If the courses you’re taking now won’t count toward your four-year degree, then you’ll need to take additional courses later, costing you more time and money.
Some colleges make this relatively simple. North Central College, for instance, provides transfer guides for its local community college partners.
Some states allow two-year and four-year institutions to form a partnership through an “articulation agreement.” Essentially, the colleges participating in these transfer agreements promise that certain community college classes will count toward degrees at certain four-year colleges. (To see Illinois’ articulation agreements, visit www.itransfer.org.)
Transferology can be another valuable resource when you’re assessing your course selections. Create a free login to determine which four-year colleges will grant community college credit for the courses you’ve taken or are considering. The site even offers suggestions for replacement courses, if yours aren’t accepted by your destination school. Be aware, though, that not every college is included on this site.
One other word to the wise: Figuring out your transfer credits and transfer requirements can be complicated. Everyone feels that way –– it’s not just you! So don’t be intimidated. You can do it. Just take your time and reach out for help when you need it. Which brings us to the next point ...
4. Don’t fly solo. You may be independent and self-motivated, but when it comes to transferring colleges, it really pays to take advantage of what others can teach you. Attend a transfer information day at your destination school. Engage with academic advisors and counselors, both at the community college and your four-year college.
At transfer-friendly schools, you may be able to obtain more information, earlier in the process. At North Central College’s monthly transfer information days, for instance, you can make an appointment to meet individually with a transfer admission counselor for an unofficial transcript assessment, even if you’re not yet an official transfer applicant who has been accepted to the college. You can talk through the ins and outs of admission requirements and financial aid, discuss degree requirements and the best courses for you to take at the community college, figure out which prerequisites you’ll need to complete, and more. Transfer advisors can be especially helpful when it’s time to navigate the admission process. For instance, they can tell you if you need to apply to a degree program and a college separately.
5. Prep for placement tests. Some higher education observers worry that community college students are often inappropriately placed into remedial math courses they don’t need. You’ll pay for those courses, but you won’t get credit toward your degree for taking them. Take time to study for exams, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve taken a class in that subject. Khan Academy offers lots of free online resources to help you prepare for these test
6. Moolah matters. Don’t panic when you see the sticker price of the four-year college; very few students pay the full amount. On the other hand, don’t assume that what you pay at a community college is what you’ll pay at a four-year institution. “Many community college transfer students believe that since their financial aid covered the cost of attendance at the community college, the same will be true at their new college. But that’s not always the case,” says North Central’s DeFalco. “Since the per-credit cost at a two-year school is lower than the per-credit cost at a four-year school, students may need additional sources of financial aid to reduce out-of-pocket expenses at their destination school.” Don’t make assumptions. You won’t know your true cost until you’ve completed your financial aid paperwork, including the FAFSA (which you need to file every year), transfer scholarship applications, and more. (For more information, look up our article on financial aid for transfer students.)
The Association of American Colleges and Universities reports that almost half of U.S. college students start their academic careers at a two-year institution. With some careful thought and planning, that can be a great first step on your way to a four-year degree.
An award-winning writer, Lauren Ford runs her own communications firm, which serves various not-for-profit organizations across the United States. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and her master’s from the University of Chicago.