The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 7.6 million college students in the U.S. are over the age of 25. Of these, many are returning to complete their degrees after taking time off for personal, family, or work-related reasons. If you’re planning to go back to college and finish what you started, there might be one big question on your mind: “Do my old college credits expire?"
The good news is that college credits do not really expire. The bad news? Your new school still might not take them. And if your credits are meaningless at a new college, then they don’t really have much value—expired or not. Imagine having a bank account full of money, but the currency isn’t accepted anywhere. Not too helpful.
Colleges weigh many factors when deciding whether to accept transfer credits; how old they are is only one of those considerations. That’s why it’s important to learn how your next school will handle transfer credits before going back to complete your degree. The more of your old credits the new school accepts, the more time and money you’ll save as a student.
Transferring credits can be exhausting. The process involves filling out paperwork, meeting deadlines, accessing records, and managing official transcripts. On top of that, there may be rules about which credits “count" for transfer. Each school has the discretion to accept or reject a prior class for credit. The lack of a consistent, easy-to-understand system can make transferring credits very challenging.
A smart way to get the most out of your pre-existing credits is to become familiar with the basics. Learn how credits work, and determine their value in helping you fulfill your school’s graduation requirements.
Read on to learn more about making your previous coursework count.
College Credits 101
Requirements for college credits vary by major, degree, and institution. Depending on your school, you might have a set list of credits to fulfill, or you might have more freedom to select your courses and electives.
The majority of colleges define a full-time course load as 12 credits per semester. Generally, this will mean that you’re taking four classes for three credits a piece. To graduate and earn your bachelor’s, you will need to earn about 120 credits.
If you do the math, you’ll see that you would need to take more than 12 credits per semester, complete an independent study or senior project on top of your full-time course load, or take classes over the summer to reach all 120 credits in four years or fewer.
When transfer credits get involved, this can get slightly more complicated. Hadass Sheffer, President of the Graduate! Network and founder of Graduate! Philadelphia, advises students to do their research before committing to a new school. “If you plan on transferring in credits from another college, you can shorten the time and cost of completing your degree," says Sheffer. “But you have to understand the process and you will have to advocate for yourself."
Sound difficult? You’re not alone.
Earning the right credits in the right order can be confounding, even when classes are all taken at the same school. Learning which credits will transfer and determining how that will impact your timeframe for graduation only adds to the confusion when you’re a returning student. But with the right information, you can successfully maximize your credit transfers.
Core and required classes
Almost all degrees and majors have some required coursework. Many schools will also require general education core curriculum courses, which might include math, English, science, psychology, and history. These usually take the form of 101 courses taken in the first year of school, and credits are generally transferrable.
Classes taken in a specific major might operate differently. Accounting, for example, might have been considered a “core" class in your first college’s business school, but could fall into a gray zone at your next. But if your new school has a quantitatively focused business program, accounting may be a required subject. Likewise, professional or vocational coursework in fields such as education or nursing might transfer to a new school if the same course of study is offered.
If you really want to maximize the number of credits that will transfer, it’s a good idea stay on track with the same major. Changing majors—from business to biology, for example — may mean that you will have to start over with core classes.
Your new school might have specific grade requirements for the courses you want transferred. This will vary by institution; some schools may require a “C" grade or higher, while others will just want to see that you passed.
Your overall GPA
Likewise, depending on the policies at your new college, your overall GPA could determine which (if any) transfer credits are accepted.
The reputation or accreditation of your original school: Most accredited colleges will require that any transfer credits come from a school that is also accredited. Colleges are accredited nationally or regionally, with accreditation ensuring high educational standards.
If you earned credits in a regional community college and are applying to a partner school, those should move over easily as long as there’s a transfer-credit agreement in place.
If you’re applying to a school with no partner relationship, however, your community college classes will be considered transfer credits. These will fall under the same guidelines as transfer credits from any four-year school.
Credits earned from an online program, vocational school, or in a program that is not highly regarded may be screened heavily. Ultimately, these types of credits may not be accepted.
If you pursued classes as part of your military training, however, you might be in luck. Depending on your school, these will probably be evaluated on a course by course basis.
Relevance to your major
Schools are most likely to accept transfer credits that can apply to your future major. If you’re maintaining the same major upon returning to school, you may be able to transfer most or all of your previous coursework. Electives may also be considered here, especially if similar electives are offered at your new school and if the electives apply to your future course of study.
Understanding all the policies surrounding credit transfers can be overwhelming. So you may need a helping hand.
Many colleges have a dedicated transfer coordinator on staff. Depending on the school, a staff member who assists with credit transfers may also be called the enrollment service aid or the prior learning assessment evaluator.
If your prospective new school employs someone like this, get in touch. Their job involves working with many transfer students, so their evaluation process is likely to be streamlined. They will be able to give you a solid idea of which credits will transfer over — and which credits will not.
Another option may be to reach out to an admissions officer at your desired school. Before you apply, inquire about sending them a copy of your official transcript for a credit transfer evaluation. This way, you’ll know where you stand and you’ll be able make an informed decision before committing to a new program.
In working with an admissions officer or transfer coordinator, here are some key questions to ask:
Although the process of getting old credits accepted at your new school might be long and complicated, you’ll benefit from the gain. Remember, many schools have resources and staff dedicated to helping transfer students with these exact issues. It’s important not to lose sight of your goals; you’re after a college degree, and your hard work will pay off.
A final note: though some schools might take almost ALL or most transfer credits from new students, this is rarely the case. It’s best to avoid guesswork by researching schools’ specific policies. It’s also important to consider the reputation of the college and confirm that it is an accredited institution. Schools that make it too easy to accept your credits may be eager to reel you in as a student. Make sure you are transferring to a school and program that has value in the marketplace.
If you’ve made the decision to go back to school, you should take care to pick a degree that will position you for growth and success. While transferring credits might shorten the time and expense required for you to complete your bachelor’s, it’s most important to pursue a course of study that will help you reach your long-term goals.
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