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Why Won't My Credits Transfer?

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

August 10, 2017

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This is the first part of a two part series on transferring colleges without losing credit. Click here to read the next post, How to Transfer Colleges Without Losing Credit.

Transferring colleges is a pain. Why do so many colleges disagree on what it takes to graduate? Why wasn’t your Organizational Behavior course from College A accepted at College B as well?

The answer is simple. Unfortunately, navigating the process… isn’t.

How Colleges Transfer Credit

You likely already know that degrees have specific criteria to meet before qualifying for graduation, and that colleges have their own unique graduation requirements as well. (So, for instance, you can get an English degree from NYU or from Louisiana State. Both will award you the same bachelor’s degree. But at each school, you’ll take a different arrangement of college credit to earn it.)

But even more specifically than that, each college has unique teaching methodologies for the courses they offer. So how you studied Organizational Leadership at NYU might align with the same course requirements from Louisiana State… but it might not.

Welcome to the overly complicated world of transferring credit.

Matching up course content

The first step in any college transfer is for the registrar to review your transcript, looking for courses they’ve transferred before.

This is primarily a data-driven task. Your school has accepted transfer students before, and may already be familiar with the credit you’ve earned. If you took English Composition at your previous school, and your new school has accepted that credit from that school in the past—congratulations! That credit will transfer easily.

But a problem arises when you attempt to transfer credit your new college is unfamiliar with. (Given there are over 5,000 different college in the united states, this is likely.)

So, say you’re trying to transfer in that Organizational Leadership course you took from NYU, but your registrar at Louisiana State isn’t sure this course quite matches their requirements. This is when the departmental dean—the lead academic in charge of that department (in this case, the psychology department)—will step in and evaluate the NYU’s Organizational Behavior course content. She will consider the syllabus, reading material, assignments, etc. to determine how much of NYU’s course requirements overlap with Louisiana State’s.

In most cases, if there is 80% or more overlap in the content and outcomes it’s likely your previous course credit will be accepted and applied to your degree.

Alternatively, the dean may decide the course you took does not match up with Louisiana’s requirements for Organizational Behavior, but it does line up with their Industrial Psychology course. So your course will be transcribed as such.

In this case, the credit may still be useful to you if your degree has room for an Industrial Psychology course. If not… sorry.

Reassignment like this is often a best-case scenario. It’s possible the course material won’t match up, and your college won’t accept your credit at all.

The Transfer Credit Problem: why nearly 70% transfer students lose credit

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 40% of transfer students lose all of their previously-earned credit (an average of 26.6 credits lost). And another 30% lose close to half (about 13 of 33 credits earned).

Transferring colleges without losing credit is actually a somewhat rare exception, with only ⅓ of transfer students keeping all of their transfer credit.

Why do so many students lose so much credit? Is it really that hard for colleges to agree on the material in their courses?

Not necessarily.

In 90% of cases students are actually losing credit for 1 of 2 reasons:

1. Their previously-earned credit isn’t advanced enough

This is especially common if a student is trying to apply credit from an associate’s degree toward a bachelor’s. All credit earned from a community college is considered “lower division.” Essentially this means less “skill” is required to study these subjects.

A good example of this is a common business course, Principles of Management. When taken at a community college, this course is taught on the 200 level. You’ll likely read about various management theories and be tested on that knowledge.

However at a 4-year school, it’s a 300 level course. They may ask you to demonstrate these various theories, or apply what you’ve learned to practical situations.

If your 4-year college requires Principles of Management, they’re requiring the more advanced, 300-level. Unfortunately, this means the credit you earned for this course at community college is now useless.

2. They’re trying to transfer duplicate content

Say you took Intro to Economics when earning an associate’s in business. But the 4-year college you’re transferring into requires several highly-specialized economics courses (like Microeconomics and Macroeconomics) for completion of a bachelor’s degree.

This is death sentence for your Intro to Economics course credit.

The specialized course material required for your bachelor’s degree overlaps the Intro to Economics course you already took. Since your college cannot doubly award credit for the same topics, and highly-specialized courses outrank general courses, your Intro to Economics cannot transfer.

If the 60 credits required for your associate’s degree credits don’t correspond to your future bachelor’s degree requirements, you’re wasting time and money. You’ll have to re-take or replace many of those same topics once you get to your desired university.

Unless your community college has a core-to-core or program-to-program articulation agreement with the university you plan to graduate from, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll complete an associate’s that doesn’t fully transfer.

Is there hope for transfer students?

I know this blog has made the prospect of transferring credit look bleak. But fear not! It is possible to transfer colleges without losing credit.

Earning transfer credit is still one of the most effective ways to cut the cost of your degree—as long as know what you’re doing. Fortunately, reading this post was your first step.

Now, get ready for some practical advice on making a successful transfer. Take a break, maybe grab a snack, and—when you’re ready—click here to read *How to Transfer Colleges Without Losing Credit.*


Special thanks to Jared Brandau, head of Unbound’s fabulous research department for his help on this post! Every year, Jared and his team help thousands of students use transfer credit to reduce the cost of college and graduate debt free! Click here to learn how they do it.

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.

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