There are a lot of reasons you might transfer from a traditional campus to an online college. Maybe you need to get a job and online college works better with your changing schedule. Maybe you’re not in love with campus culture and you realize you can complete your education online both more efficiently and more affordably. Maybe you’ve just earned your associate’s degree at a community college and you’d like to advance into an online bachelor’s program. Maybe you’re just sick of leaving the house during the winter. (Is it just me, or does scraping ice off your windshield make you sometimes give up on everything and just move to a communal bungalow on some tropical island?)
Whatever your reason, a lot of students are in the same boat, or at least a similar boat. Online education is a rapidly growing sector. This means that all kinds of transfer scenarios are becoming increasingly commonplace. U.S. News & World Report says that, according to a 2014 report by Aslanian Market Research and Learning House, roughly eighty percent of online undergraduates have earned credit elsewhere.
In fact, the American Council on Education says today’s average student will have attended three different institutions before graduating college.
This means that, like you, a great many of your peers are making the transition into online college. That’s good news, because it means that the sometimes complicated, obfuscating, possibly even infuriating process of transferring credits is actually getting easier and more streamlined all the time.
Still, there are a few important things you should know before you proceed. In the interests of avoiding unnecessary complications, minimizing costs, and maximizing credit transference, you’ll want to ask (and answer) each of these questions as you navigate the process.
Is Your Online School Accredited?
Your first step, whenever you’re looking to apply or transfer to a new school, is to conduct a thorough quality and credibility check. This is especially true when you’re moving into the online education sector, where shady for-profit schools and fraudulent degree mills roam free. Be sure that you know what you’re looking at.
The first thing you need to consider is accreditation. There are all kinds of official-sounding accreditors out there, but the only ones that matter are those recognized by the Department of Education. For greater specificity, you can also consult the five dozen or so accrediting agencies listed by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
While the accrediting agencies listed here will vary in their reputation, two things they have in common is that they are recognized by the Department of Education and none of them will accredit fraudulent institutions known as diploma mills. Wikipedia maintains an ongoing list of “unrecognized higher education accreditation organizations.” If you’re at all skeptical about the agency listed by your school of choice, see if it shows up here.
Also important to note is that regional accreditation is generally superior to national accreditation. (The major regional accreditation associations are listed here, on the right.) A stamp from any one of these associations is typically a reliable indicator that your school is running a legitimate operation. If you are looking at an online college that is not accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education, it means that school lacks the authority to provide you with access to student aid. It also means that the credits you’ve accumulated toward a degree in your legitimate brick & mortar school might not have much value to your new, unaccredited school.
To learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out our accreditation guide: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors? There’s even a handy flowchart!
Is Your Online School Legit?
As noted, accreditation should be your first level of quality assurance. But it’s not the only thing you need to consider as you evaluate your options. Again, even Department of Education-approved accreditors vary in reputation.
Likewise, there are many trade and technical schools that can award useful and credible certifications without need for academic accreditation. If this is the type of online school you’re thinking of attending, you’ll need to conduct your own background checks.
Whatever your situation, you should follow-up with some basic Googling to learn more about your school’s history and reputation. Read student reviews, professor ratings, the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, and of course, any news items that include phrases like “scandal,” “fraud,” or “massive corruption.” I probably don’t have to tell you that those words are red flags.
Avoid diploma mills and for-profit schools with poor records on things such as student debt, graduation rates, and postgraduate employment rates. To learn more about the difference between legitimate online colleges and diploma mills, check out our aptly named piece, Online College versus Diploma Mills: Know the Difference.
How Clear Is the Transfer Process?
The transfer process will differ from school to school, but high among the intended advantages of online college are convenience and accessibility. There are few things less convenient than confusion over credit transfer. Be sure that the online college you intend to transfer to makes it easy to navigate your way to becoming a student. And make use of all the support resources available to you, both online and through interaction with support personnel.
Does the school provide adequate and clear online instructions on transferring credits? Is the process itself straightforward, user-friendly, and geared toward the maximization of credits you can transfer? Is there personal, human support you can access as you navigate the process?
These are important questions and not just because you obviously want to simplify the transfer process. How well your chosen school handles these matters will also be a telling indicator of how accommodating and user-friendly your educational experience is likely to be. Because online college is often such an independent journey, you’ll want to know upfront that your school’s web-mediated applications are intuitive, that support personnel are responsive, and that the school is experienced at seamlessly onboarding transfer students like yourself.
Is There a Residency Requirement?
Any time you transfer from one institution to another, you’ll want to find out about residency requirements. This isn’t exactly what it sounds like. Obviously, if you’re attending online school, you’re not planning to live on campus. This has nothing to do with where your mail gets sent. Residency refers to the portion of your credit total that has been earned in a specific school. Some online colleges will require that you have completed as many as half of your credit hours under their supervision in order to qualify for a degree from that institution.
If you anticipate transferring to an online college, find out whether or not the school of your choice has a residency requirement. If so, the sooner you make the move, the better. If you’ve already accumulated a majority of your degree program credits on-campus somewhere, seek out a credible online school without a residency requirement. It goes without saying that the more credits you can transfer, the faster and more affordable the online portion of your education will ultimately be.
Are There Limits on Transferrable Credits?
Equally consequential are limits to the number of transferable credits your online college will allow. Find this out early in the process. Once again, this factor might incline you to transfer sooner rather than later. If you have your heart set on an online school with transfer limits, you should make the move as soon as possible. On the other hand, if you’ve already accumulated a majority of your credits elsewhere, seek a legitimate online school without limits on the number of transferable credits.
In addition to limits on the number of transferrable credits, there may be limits on transference of certain kinds of credits. For instance, if you are a student who has taken time off since beginning your studies, you should be aware that aging credits can actually expire. If you have old credits collecting dust, brush them off and find out if they’ll transfer to the online college of your choice.
One other word of warning: bad grades don’t usually transfer. A “D+” from your old college might have gotten you credits, but your new school doesn’t want them. In most cases, only a “C” or higher will make your credits palatable for a new school.
How Will Your Credits Transfer?
Another wrinkle in the process: your credits might transfer to your new online college but not necessarily to your degree program. Because of nuances that differentiate the curriculum or taxonomy of courses between your old school and your new school, some credits might not function the same way, either as prerequisites or toward the completion of your major. This means you may need to take certain courses again at your new school, even if this institution allowed the basic transfer of credits. Find out before you make the move what you’ll need to do to remain on pace not just toward graduation but toward completion of your intended degree.
Do You Already Have a Degree?
If so, that could significantly improve the ease of transferring credits. In other words, students with associate’s degrees will usually have a much better shot at transferring credits than will students with a scattershot collection of unrelated course credits. If you’ve completed your associate’s program, you might have a better chance of jumping into the intermediate stages of an online bachelor’s degree program without losing credit for certain prerequisites or degree requirements. If you are close to the completion of a degree, you might be best served by wrapping your program up before making the transition.
Is There an Articulation Agreement?
If the above scenario applies to you, there’s a chance that an articulation agreement could also apply to you. Often, traditional and online colleges will be party to agreements that help to simplify the transfer process. This is especially true of community colleges. If you’re going from an associate’s degree program at a community college to an online bachelor’s degree program, look for programs that have established articulation agreements. State Universities—which are, like everybody else, increasingly offering online programs—are particularly likely to have articulation agreements with area community colleges. Finding an online school with that connection is a great first step to simplifying the process. It’s also your best bet for maximizing the number of transferable credits.
Have You Kept a Paper Trail?
Schools are big bureaucracies and stuff gets lost. It’s a good idea to keep printed copies of your degree, transcripts, and even syllabi and completed assignments. This can provide documented proof of your attendance and completion of courses. If you find yourself navigating an administrative bureaucracy to maximize the number of transferrable credits—and this is always a possibility—you’ll want this kind of evidence at your fingertips. You never know when you might have to build a case.
Speaking of building a case…
OK. This last one isn’t so much a question as a word of parting advice. Don’t take no for an answer. (Well, if they call security and threaten to have you forcibly removed from an admissions office, maybe take no for answer.)
Short of that though, getting credits transferred is not an exact science. Depending on your school of choice, there is a little bit of elasticity to the rules. Don’t be afraid to appeal decisions that limit the number of credits you can transfer. Contact your new admissions office or other appropriate support personnel and discuss the reasons you believe your prior educational experience warrants the transfer of certain credits.
Some schools may even be willing to grant alternative paths to credit transfers by acknowledging work and life experiences. There may be a valid but creative solution to bringing as many credits as possible to your online school.
But you don’t know until you ask. Do everything you can to turn a no into a yes.
And if you’re just getting started in the process, check out our list of The 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019.
Take a look, find the best school for you, and keep these transfer tips handy as you go!