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Nedda Gilbert
Noodle Expert Member

March 16, 2021

Credit transfer and dual admissions agreements between community colleges and universities mean you can start your bachelor's at a less-expensive community college, then finish it at the university.

If you're returning to college as an adult, starting at a traditional four-year college is not your only choice. Looking for a less intimidating option, or simply one that costs less? Consider community college: it can ease your transition to college life and springboard you to a more advanced degree. Many community colleges offer programs that lead directly to a bachelor's degree at a four-year school.

Students who choose community college over a four-year college do so for a variety of reasons. Community colleges have markedly lower tuition rates, for one. They also tend to be less challenging academically than four-year institutions, allowing students to ramp up to the demands of undergraduate education. For some students, community college schedules, which typically favor night classes, make it much easier to work full-time while attending school.

However, for many, the main benefit of community college is that it can serve as a bridge to a bachelor's degree. According to Columbia University's Community College Research Center, 8.7 million students were enrolled in community college in 2016; of those, 81 percent indicated that they intended to transfer to a four-year college (for various reasons, only 33 percent ultimately made the move). Many of those who do transfer will do so through an academic partnership program—such as a transfer/articulation agreement or a dual admissions program—between their community college and a four-year institution.

Transfer/articulation agreements

For the roughly 7 million students who enroll in community colleges each year with the end goal of achieving a four-year degree, transfer/articulation agreements set the rules governing the transfer of their community college credits. Under articulation agreements, four-year institutions identify those community college courses that can be applied toward a bachelor's degree.

The most common form of transfer-articulation agreement is between community colleges and state universities. These agreements are typically codified in state law and apply to all community/junior colleges and public institutions within a particular state. The goal of these agreements is to simplify transfer between the community college and four-year systems; absent these agreements, universities would have to review each transfer student's official transcripts individually and determine, one course at a time, which courses qualify for transfer credit and which don't. Some community colleges also have articulation agreements with private colleges and universities, but these are less common.

Transfer/articulation agreements set a floor by designating which courses must be accepted for transfer; in some instances, a college or university will also accept courses not designated under the transfer/articulation agreement for transfer credit. Transfer students would be wise to look into this while securing their transfers; the additional transfer credits, if conferred, will put them closer to graduation and reduce the number of credits they need to acquire (and hence their tuition) at the four-year institution.

It is worth noting that not all credits accrued at a community college will transfer to a four-year institution. Those courses that do transfer should be clearly identified, but each year students face the disappointment of learning that some credits won't be coming with them to State; for example, a recent study shows that community college students in Connecticut were losing up to 20 percent of their credits when transferring to University of Connecticut.

Dual admissions programs

Some community colleges also offer guaranteed transfer admissions—known as dual admissions—to select four-year institutions. Under dual admissions, students are conditionally admitted to a four-year institution—pending successful completion of their associate's degree—at the same time that they are admitted to the community college.

Dual admissions eliminate the hassle of having to officially apply for a transfer at the end of community college. So long as the student completes an associate's degree within a prescribed period, takes only courses approved by the four-year institution (these courses are typically identified in the four-year institution's supporting materials), and maintains a minimum grade point average, she will automatically transfer to the four-year institution upon completion of the associate's degree. Take note that admission to highly competitive programs within the sponsoring four-year college is typically not guaranteed, i.e. you will be admitted to the state university, but not necessarily to its popular business program.

In many instances, dual admissions afford additional benefits, such as access to support services (financial aid, career services, counseling) from the four-year institution. These agreements vary from state to state and from institution to institution, so it's a good idea to research how each prospective program works.

How best to get that bachelor's degree?

Older and returning students face many obstacles to completing their college educations: lack of time, lack of funds, and lack of academic confidence can block these aspiring graduates from reaching their dreams.

Community colleges can be an enriching and positive precursor to a four-year institution, particularly for a student who is returning to school after some time away. They are less intimidating than four-year universities, where financial and time commitments are greater. Starting within the safe and supportive space of community college can benefit students who want to ease into baccalaureate studies. Even when a bachelor's degree is the ultimate goal, community colleges fit the bill: transfer/articulation agreements and dual admissions programs ensure that the end goal will always be in sight.

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