Reviewed by Julie Vandekreke
Do college credits expire? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer, because there are a lot of factors at play in credit transfer. In this article, we’ll walk you through the basics and share some tips and tricks so that you can start the program of your choice with as many credits as possible!
Who Transfers Credits?
Hundreds of thousands of students transfer credits yearly. In fact, nearly 35% of college students are adults who may have completed some college but might not have earned their degree due to family or career commitments. While some adult students may have taken classes fairly recently, others might not have been in the classroom for thirty years or more. In many cases, students have relocated from one part of the country to another, so going back to the original college or university they attended may not be an option. For others, the degree program they want to complete may no longer be available at their original college.
Students in these situations, as well as many others, should make an effort to transfer at least some of their credits--it’s absolutely worth the effort, and it can save tons of time and money.
Understanding Credit Transfer
Course Equivalency and Articulation Agreements
The guiding principle behind credit transfer is course equivalency, sometimes also referred to as articulation agreements. When schools establish course equivalency, they acknowledge that one school’s course is roughly equal to a similar course at another school. Unfortunately, course equivalency acceptance criteria, requirements, and processes vary widely, so there are some important things you should know before working with a school to learn more about how they establish course equivalency.
For example, If you’re researching a particular school or program, ask the Admissions or Registrar’s office if they have any publicly available information about course equivalency--sometimes, institutions will publish guides featuring their articulation agreements, especially with online schools or community colleges in the same state. Additionally, you should be prepared to send a syllabus or sample work from your course if it’s possible. (Schools sometimes only review publicly available online catalog descriptions to determine if courses are equivalent, and a syllabus or some sample assignments may help you make the case that your credits should be transferred if the catalog simply doesn’t offer enough information.) Finally, though most credits must be from accredited institutions in order to transfer, don’t hesitate to inquire about any non-accredited school course credits you may have--after all, it never hurts to ask!
As you begin researching credit transfer options, understand that many schools set a limit on how many credits you can transfer. Most institutions require the successful completion of 60 credits for an Associate’s degree or 120 credits for a Bachelor’s degree. As a general rule, you’ll need to complete at least a year’s worth of work (30 credits) at the school you hope to graduate from.
When you’re reviewing potential schools and programs, be sure to check how many credits you are allowed to transfer. The limit may vary by institution, so it may make sense to pick a school that will allow you to transfer more credits than another. Also, be sure to ask about any specific limits on general education, program requirement, or elective credits. (Read on to learn more about what this means.) If a school limits your ability to transfer general education or program requirement credits, you may find yourself taking additional courses to meet your degree requirements even if you have met or exceeded the number of total credits necessary to graduate by transferring in electives.
Will My Credits Transfer?
Some courses are more likely to transfer than others. General education or core curriculum courses are more likely to transfer with little or no trouble, even if it’s been a decade or two since you took a class. Core curriculum classes often include lower-division English, History, Art, Humanities, Science and Math classes. Because many programs offer similar courses at this level, schools are more likely to accept credits earned from other institutions.
Elective courses don’t necessarily count towards general education or program requirements, and they’re also somewhat less important to your ability to graduate with a particular degree. If a school designates most of your transfer credits as electives (e.g., perhaps you took a course in creative writing rather than college composition, or perhaps a business administration program you’re applying to is transferring some of your credits in as communication electives), you’ll likely still have a significant number of general education or program requirement courses to take at your new institution.
Which Credits are Least Likely to Transfer
Program requirement courses usually require the most course equivalency research, and every discipline approaches their courses a bit differently. In general, upper-level science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses are the least likely to transfer, especially if it’s been more than 10 years since you took them. Here are some specific reasons why:
- Technology advances rapidly. Every year, STEM disciplines are discovering new concepts, processes and techniques. That means that courses must change in order to keep pace with research and development in medicine, biotechnology, engineering and computer science, to name just a few industries.
- Most schools that offer STEM classes have to consider their academic reputations, timeliness and course quality when trying to recruit students, so the ability to keep pace with changing technology in courses is critical for giving graduates the best possible chances of getting jobs when they receive their degrees.
If you have taken STEM classes within the last several years, plan to provide a syllabus of every STEM course you've completed if you can. Remember that it's up to each school to decide whether they will accept yours, so you may want to see whether one school offers you more transfer credit than another.
Overall, the mix of courses you've completed, how long ago you took those courses, and the school you are applying to will combine to determine if the credits will transfer.
How to Transfer Credits
Once you’ve identified an institution you’d like to transfer credits to, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your transfer process goes smoothly.
- Assemble all of your necessary materials. This may mean contacting any previous institution you’ve attended to request a transcript or a syllabus from a certain course and semester. (Most institutions are required to keep their syllabi on file, so if you’ve lost yours, don’t hesitate to ask if there’s a copy available.)
- Go online and research your target university's website and your preferred program. You may be able to make a high level assessment of how many college credits will transfer by comparing what's in your transcript to those listed in each degree program web page.
- Review the Admissions or Registrar’s office requirements at the school you plan to transfer to. Although there might not be a lot of specifics, you should be able to get a general idea of the credit transfer process. Be prepared to call or email the appropriate office with specific questions. Take notes when you speak with a representative to get as much information as possible.
- Follow the admissions office process and guidelines for submitting your past college courses to them. Most schools will require an official (rather than unofficial) transcript. Occasionally, it can take some time for a school to send an official transcript, so plan accordingly.
Transferring to a new school is a big decision, but it doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Taking some control of your situation by understanding how to maximize your credit transfer will help you continue your education in a way that saves you time and money so that you can earn your degree as quickly as possible!
Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom.
Looking for study tips to help you successfully complete online college courses? Check out this great article: Tips for Effective Online Learning