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7 dos and don'ts for community college transfer students

The cost of college is going up every year, and more and more students are looking for ways to take a chunk out of the cost of a degree. Earning an online bachelor's degree can sometimes lower the overall price tag of your education, for example, but not everyone is in a place where they feel up to the additional challenges that can come with a distance education program.

Starting at community college and finishing your degree in a university program is another option, and the money saved this way can be significant — the College Board reports that the national average for yearly in-state tuition at public universities hit $9,410 in 2015-16, while two-year schools charged just $3,435 the same year. That's an average savings of nearly $12,000 just for taking your first two years of classes at community college. Not bad, right?

Unfortunately, difficulties can sometimes arise when the time comes to officially transfer your earned credits. It doesn't have to be a struggle, however, and we've got some advice that can help you make it work. Check out these top tips from advisers, admissions counselors, former professors and other experts on how to navigate this multi-stage hack of the bachelor's degree process.

1. DO know which university you plan to attend

1. DO know which university you plan to attend

Having a university in mind allows you to schedule your early college education around a specific admissions and transfer policy, helping you eliminate a lot of the uncertainty that can occur when you aren't thinking in the long term. Some two-year colleges even have standing agreements with nearby universities that can make transferring your credits a simple and straightforward matter.

According to Clark Steen, vice president of Power Forward Tutoring and former community college professor, "Stay in contact with the [university] registrar's office and your future adviser so you know exactly what credits will transfer. Most colleges are intimately familiar with the process . . . including giving scholarships and automatic admission when certain benchmarks are reached."

2. DON'T blow off classes because you're only taking them for credit

2. DON'T blow off classes because you're only taking them for credit

As associate director of admissions at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, Teri Mickle has seen her share of transfer applications. "Although your mileage may vary," said Mickle, "[transferable] courses must be at least 100 level and you need to earn a 'C' or better."

Which is to say that the old campus joke — 'D' stands for diploma — doesn't exactly apply here. In most cases, you'll have to stay at or above average in your community college courses for them to have a chance of counting toward a bachelor's degree.

Also, just to be clear, the "100 level" courses she's referring to are standard first-year courses. Courses below that level are typically used to remediate students who are missing prerequisites on their high school transcripts, and you're free to take some of them if you want to, but their credits are unlikely to count toward the graduation requirement for your bachelor's program.

3. DO choose your electives wisely

3. DO choose your electives wisely

Some community college transfer policies require students to fully complete an associate degree curriculum in order to make a smooth transfer to a partner university. If your school has one of these, you'll likely have a few credit hours each semester to fill with any course you want to take.

These elective courses can be used to learn more about a field you're personally interested in, flesh out your major with complementary skills or work toward satisfying some of the conditions for a minor at the university level. Whatever you plan to do with your elective credits, it's a good idea to make sure that most of the courses you choose will meet your university's transfer requirements.

Now, this is not to say that you shouldn't take a few courses that speak to your interests regardless of their transfer-worthiness. It's just important to be mindful of how your enrollment decisions during the community college portion of your education might influence the size of the discount you eventually receive on your university degree.

4. DO work with transfer counselors at both schools

4. DO work with transfer counselors at both schools

Rachel Moody, an academic adviser at the University of Albany - SUNY, gave us some reasoning for being hands-on at every stage of your pending transfer. "Some institutions, like ours, have restricted majors," Moody said. "When you meet with a transfer counselor, it will be important to look at how long it may take you to meet the prerequisites to apply to a particular major."

One of the main reasons for diligence in this matter is that, if overlooked, any major-specific prerequisites unfulfilled by your community college coursework could extend the time you spend in your university program and counterfeit some of the savings you've engineered by attending community college in the first place.

5. DO keep your classroom paperwork

5. DO keep your classroom paperwork

We're not suggesting that you hang on to every handout that you receive in the course of your education, but it's best practices to hang on at least to the syllabus handed out at the beginning of each course that summarizes the material you'll be covering throughout the semester.

Rachel Moody pointed out that an established transfer agreement between your community college and your intended university can take some of the necessity out of this step, but in all other cases it's highly recommended.

"I had an international student who brought me the syllabi for all of his courses to evaluate ones that transferred in as electives," Moody said. "It turned out that he had met all of the prerequisites for his intended major and even had half of another major fulfilled! Without his syllabi, he would have taken many courses he did not need."

6. DON'T attend an unaccredited school

6. DON'T attend an unaccredited school

Accreditation is designed to ensure that the education delivered by an institution meets a common set of quality standards. As such, it's typically the case that accredited universities only permit the incoming transfer of credits earned at other accredited schools.

Sabrina Eames also works at the UAlbany Advisement Services Center. "Generally," Eames told us in an interview, "courses completed at a school that holds a regional accreditation transfer more frequently and easily than those completed at a school that holds national or unrecognized accreditation."

Check out the U.S. Department of Education's accredited institution search tool to find out if and by whom your chosen schools are accredited. It's often still possible to transfer credits to or from an institution with non-regional accreditation, you just may have to do some extra legwork to get it all sorted out.

7. DO know what it takes to get your official transcript

7. DO know what it takes to get your official transcript

If there's a master document in the credit transfer process, it's the official transcript. Everyone we talked to mentioned the importance of having your official transcript sent to your university program before the transfer deadline, and the requirements for acquiring one may vary from one community college to another.

It's often the case that community college policies prevent students from receiving their official transcript until their account is financially settled, which may include finalizing such seemingly trivial things as parking tickets and library fines. There may be other requirements as well, so get the details from a registrar at your community college a semester or so before you're ready to transfer and make sure you're in the clear.

Sweat the small stuff, sometimes

This list is a pretty inclusive one, but there may be small issues specific to your program that aren't covered above. It's always wise to schedule some time with an adviser or transfer counselor at your community college and find out exactly how to handle the process in your own personal set of circumstances.

Sources:

  1. Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time, Trends in Higher Education, The College Board, accessed April 22, 2016, http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-and-fees-and-room-and-board-over-time-1
  2. Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education, accessed April 22, 2016, http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/
  3. Email interview, Clark Steen, conducted April 18, 2016
  4. Email interview, Teri Mickle, conducted April 18, 2016
  5. Email interview, Sabrina Eames, conducted April 19, 2016
  6. Email interview, Rachel Moody, conducted April 19, 2016