What to Know About Transferring From a Community College | Community Colleges

For many students, community college is only the first stop in their educational journey.

Bachelor’s degrees are not commonly offered at community colleges, so depending on a student’s intended career pathway, transferring to a four-year institution is often necessary. But while 80% of community college students are interested in getting a bachelor’s degree, only 14% actually attain one within six years of community college entry, according to a recent report from the American Talent Initiative, a philanthropy-supported organization aimed at improving college access and graduation for students with low or moderate income.

“There’s this major gap between aspirations and outcomes,” says Tania LaViolet, director of the bachelor’s attainment portfolio at the Aspen College Excellence Program and one of the study’s authors. Often barriers – including credit transfers, cost of attendance and lack of support – inhibit students’ ability to transfer.

Experts say it’s important for students to find someone to help them navigate the transfer process, conduct research and choose a school that aligns with their financial aid needs. Here’s what community college students need to know about transferring to a four-year college or university.

Process of Transferring to a Four-Year School

Though requirements vary at each institution, the application process for transfer and first-year students are often similar.

Some schools accept the common application for transfer students, for instance, while others may have their own application. Document requirements typically include an essay, high school or community college transcript, letters of recommendation and test scores, if applicable.

“All of those pieces come together to really tell a story of all of their accomplishments and all of the exciting ways that they might continue that work and those interests at their next institution,” says Alex DiAddezio, senior assistant director of admission at Williams College in Massachusetts.

In some cases, community college students are guaranteed admission at select institutions under an articulation agreement – ​​a partnership between multiple colleges and universities to ease the transfer process. Some articulation agreements focus solely on course equivalencies to ensure that students’ credits are transferrable.

Unlike first-year college students, transfer students typically have one deadline or rolling admissions, DiAddezio says. Some schools require students to be enrolled in college for a certain amount of time before qualifying as a transfer student.

What Is a Reverse Transfer?

Many students transfer to a four-year school from a community college before completing an associate degree. But there is still an option to earn that degree, known as a reverse transfer.

Once a student takes all of the credits at their four-year institution required for an associate degree, they can send their transcript back to the community college to receive that credential. A bachelor’s degree does not necessarily need to be attained first.

Several states, like Illinois, have reverse transfer policies set in legislation. Transfer students from a public community college in Illinois, for instance, can participate in a reverse transfer program. To qualify, students must have completed at least 15 semester hours at a public community college in the state and earned 60 semester hours of college credit.

“Some students personally want it because they have done the work to earn it and they want to go through the process of completing that particular educational milestone,” says Brian Troyer, dean of undergraduate admissions at Marquette University in Wisconsin. “And then for some students, their goal all along was earning a bachelor’s degree so they’re not as interested in or they don’t feel as compelled to go through the process.”

Transfer Tips for Community College Students

1. Be Immersed on Campus

Take advantage of all the experiences at a community college, both inside and outside of the classroom, DiAddezio says, “because that’s going to make a stronger application.” For instance, students can join club or other organizations if their schedules allow.

Also, find courses that are academically challenging, interesting and exciting. Take the time to build relationships with professors, as they can often be a resource during the transfer process.

2. Find a Mentor

Thirty percent of students lose at least a quarter of their existing academic credit during the transfer process, according to a report from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and StraighterLine, a platform that partners with colleges to support student enrollment and graduation.

Figuring out credit transfers can be confusing, so experts advise community colleges students to find a mentor – such as a faculty member or academic adviser – in their first semester to help with understanding the process and courses that typically transfer.

“Try to have a good faculty mentor, somebody to talk to about what those next steps look like, and then maybe that mentor can bridge an opportunity with a faculty member at the receiving institution,” says Jerrett Phillips, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Cameron University in Oklahoma. “So often, I think students discount the length that faculty and staff can go to help them connect, stay connected and do well.”

3. To Research

Before narrowing down a list of schools to transfer to, students should understand their career, academic and life goals.

“Try to map backwards from there the academic path that you need to take in order to reach those goals,” LaViolet says. “Do that work first so that when you’re talking to your adviser, they’re able to provide guidance that aligns with those goals.”

Visiting the campus in person or virtually may help students determine if a college is the right fit. To learn more about a school, community college students can also get in touch with current students.

4. Find a Financial Fit

A community college is often the more affordable option. The average tuition price at a community college is about $3,800 annually for the 2022-2023 school year, while annual average costs at four-year institutions range from about $10,000 for in-state tuition at public schools up to nearly $40,000 at private nonprofit universities, according to the College Board.

However, students should look beyond the sticker price, as they often pay less than what’s advertised, experts say.

Transfer students can apply for financial aid, in most cases, by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA. Though not common, some schools offer scholarships specifically for transfer students. The University of Maryland, for instance, offers several transfer scholarships ranging from $5,000 to full tuition.

“Students shouldn’t hesitate to dream big in terms of finding a space that can really meet their needs and not put them into a place that might feel risky or not financially comfortable,” DiAddezio says. “I really encourage them to examine their resources, see all the different types of financial aid that are out there. Know that there are institutions that are offering some really exciting financial aid.”


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