A Guide on How to Go Back to College: Part Five

The College Credit Transfer Process

By Beth Dumbauld

This is the fifth installment in a multi-part series about how to go back to college. Earlier parts looked at how to create a personal and career inventory as well as exploring fast growing occupations and assessing academic gaps. We also explored online college options and the overall college choice mix. This time, in Part Five, we will look at the college credit transfer process. Next time, in Part Six, we will focus on financial aid.

Returning to college? Starting college for the first time? You may be surprised, but you might not have to start from scratch -- as long as you understand how to transfer college credits. A transfer credit, simply put, is a credit accepted by a college which allows you to bypass prerequisite courses and go directly into more advanced courses. In other words, by transferring credits you can save both time and money by re-entering college at a stage beyond what would normally be considered your first semester. This will allow you to graduate earlier than you would otherwise.

The American Council on Education (ACE) uses the following to describe the transfer of credits:

“Transfer refers to the movement of students from one college, university or other educational provider to another, and the process by which credits representing educational experiences, courses, degrees, or credentials are accepted or not accepted by a receiving institution.”1

No matter the definition, transfer credits are a good thing. Transfer credits can save you time and money. The more you know, and use, them, the better.

Here are the leading ways to earn and use transfer credits:

  1. Previous college experience: It is not uncommon for non-traditional students to have acquired previous college credits at past educational institutions. Be sure to contact and obtain transcripts from past colleges and have that information sent, per their transfer process, to the institution you are considering, in order to see if and how your college credits will transfer. If you intend on going to the same school you attended previously, stepping back where you left off should be fairly simple. However, not all schools accept all credits earned at other institutions. Before you begin a new program, see where your credits put you.
  2. Two-year degree transfer to a 4-year program: Many community colleges have special agreements, called articulation agreements,2 with select 4-year colleges regarding how to transfer college credits, courses, and even majors. This can be a huge money saver for those looking to move on from a 2-year institution to earn a bachelors degree. Before you start taking classes at a community college, be sure to find out if the 4-year college you’d like to transfer into accepts the credits from that community college. Not all do. Talk with a community college advisor before you enroll so you can fully understand the process before you start and not be caught unaware by non-transferable credit. You can also talk to other students to find out about their college credit transfer experiences.
  3. Take prerequisite courses online: For those looking to obtain low cost college credits with a high degree of flexibility, taking college courses online can offer an ideal mix of price and schedule freedom. Online programs, like the ones offered by StraighterLine.com, can be particularly cost-effective. StraighterLine.com offers college-level classes you can take for $99 per month with a one-time fee of $49 per course, and has a network of partner colleges which have been pre-approved to accept transfer credits earned from taking their courses. And if the courses you take are reviewed and recommended by the American Council on Education College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT) -- as StraighterLine’s are -- then your credits may also be accepted at over 1200 colleges and universities that are members of the ACE CREDIT network.
  4. Past work experience and continuing education: You can earn college credit equivalencies by passing tests through the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP).3 These 90-minute exams, which can help you earn a qualifying score on 33 introductory-level college subject exams, are administered at a variety of test centers and at various colleges. You can also earn college credit through a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). A PLA can evaluate your level of learning from activities like military service, community service, work experience, and independent studies and make appropriate credit recommendations.
  5. Military training: The American Council on Education (ACE) also provides a reference guide entitled, “A Transfer Guide: Understanding Your Military Transcript and ACE Credit Recommendations”4 which helps military personnel and veterans understand the credit transfer process step-by-step. The ability for military training to earn college credits will vary with the college’s transfer policy as well as the type of program and major a student is looking to pursue.

1 American Council on Education, Military Programs, A Transfer Guide: Understanding Your Military Transcript and ACE Credit Recommendations, 2009, P. 5

2 The College Board, Transferring from a Community College to a Four-year College, p.1

3 http://clep.collegeboard.org/started

4 American Council on Education, Military Programs, A Transfer Guide: Understanding Your Military Transcript and ACE Credit Recommendations, 2009, P. 7

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