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How Do I Transfer Schools Or Get Credits Before I Enroll?
Plus tips for claiming credit on courses you took a long time ago.
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(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
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There are a lot of ways to get credits from one school recognized at another. If you’ve been out of school for a while, are trying to transfer from a community college to a four-year degree program, or are trying to find the quickest way to finish a credential, here’s some information to get you started.

What should I know about transferring?

Transferring between schools is pretty common — some students do it because they’ve moved, want a program that’s a better fit, or are building on credits they’ve already earned. Here are some things to know ahead of time about transferring while you’re already enrolled:

You can save money in the long run (with some planning). Transferring from a community college to a four-year school, or from a CSU to a UC, for example, can help cut down the overall tuition of a four-year degree — if you plan ahead.

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Some schools have a built-in transfer process. Many schools have agreements with each other that make it easier for students to transfer. There are established pathways for transferring between California’s public colleges — from community college to CSUs and UCs (see below for more details), or between CSUs and UCs. Several of these schools also have individual transfer agreements with private colleges within and outside of California. If you look up “articulation agreements” on a school website, you can find out more details about how to transfer from there to other schools.

Do some planning. You have to meet a list of requirements to be eligible to transfer, and it can be competitive to transfer to particular schools. Look carefully at the requirements of the school you want to go to. Call admissions offices and attend information sessions to get your questions answered. A transfer counselor at the school you want to attend will be the best resource for making sure you’ve got all the requirements covered for getting into that school, especially if you’re trying to get into a specific department or program.

If you’re at a community college, make sure you meet with a Transfer Center counselor early on and at least two semesters before you hope to transfer, so you can make sure you’re on the right track. (General academic counselors may not have the same knowledge of transfer policies and strategies as Transfer Center counselors do.) A Transfer Center counselor can introduce you to different transfer options based on what you want to study and help you devise a plan. Counseling appointments tend to be in high demand at many schools, so if you’re waiting a long time to meet with someone, here’s some basic information to get you started.

If you’re a California community college student, there are some paths you can take for transferring to a CSU or UC:

  • Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT): This is a way to earn an associate degree at a community college and a guaranteed transfer to certain four-year schools, including CSUs. If you already know what you want to study, you can complete a set of required courses under the ADT program and land a spot at a CSU with a similar major (though not necessarily a specific campus of your choice). The Cal State website has a tool where you can look up ADT programs from different community colleges and see which CSU campuses you’d be eligible to transfer to.
  • CSU General Education: If you know you want to transfer to a CSU, but don’t have an ADT program or don’t know which campus to which you want to transfer, you can complete a set of general education classes that will be accepted at all Cal State campuses.
  • UC Transfer Pathways: If you already know your major but aren’t sure to which UC you want to transfer, you can follow a Transfer Pathway roadmap to make your application competitive across multiple UCs. See the list of available majors and more details here.
  • IGETC: If you’re interested in having more transfer options all around (CSUs, UCs, and certain private schools), you can complete a set of courses known as IGETC (Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum). These classes fulfill your freshman and sophomore general education requirements for participating four-year colleges, although completing them does not guarantee you transfer admission. IGETC requirements vary slightly between CSUs and UCs, so read them carefully. For instance, CSUs require a class in oral communication while UCs do not, and UCs require a class in a language other than English while CSUs do not.
  • Guaranteed transfer programs: If you’d rather not bother with competition, there are other programs like the Associate Degree for Transfer that guarantee you transfer admission to a four-year school. Long Beach City College’s Promise 2.0 program guarantees transfer admission to CSU Long Beach for those studying a particular major. If you’re a military veteran, you also get first priority for transferring (read more about other considerations for veterans here). And six UCs have guaranteed admission for community college students who meet certain requirements.

CSUs and UCs require you to have completed 60 semester units (or 90 quarter units) of transferable classes before you can be admitted, but they won’t accept more than 70 semester units (105 quarter units) of lower-division coursework credits at a community college. That means you have to be strategic about taking enough transferable credits but not too many classes overall.
Here are some tools that can help with your planning:

  • Assist: This website lets you see transfer agreements between all the public colleges in California. For instance, if you’re at Riverside City College and looking to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona, you can select a major and see all of the courses that you would need to take at Riverside to satisfy the lower-division requirements for that major at Cal Poly. This is a handy tool for making sure the classes you’re taking are actually transferable to the school you want to go to. Important note: Sometimes transfer requirements may change without being updated immediately on Assist, so it’s still important to double check with a counselor to make sure your information is correct.
  • IGETC worksheet: Many community colleges will have their own version of a worksheet where you can keep track of IGETC requirements and whether you’ve completed them. See a sample sheet from Pasadena City College here.
  • UC Transfer Admission Planner: This digital tool lets you keep track of the courses you’ve taken or plan to take, and check your progress toward completing UC transfer requirements.

I took some college courses a long time ago. Will my credits transfer?

The answer depends on a few things:

  • the school and program you previously attended
  • what classes you took
  • where you’d like to go to school now
  • what you want to study

Some schools have degree completion programs tailored to people who’ve begun their work on a degree but haven’t finished yet. The programs tend to be offered for only a small selection of degrees, but can help students who need a flexible schedule and want to finish their degree work at a more accelerated pace. Classes tend to be offered either online or during weekend and evening hours. Here’s an example of offerings from Cal State Online’s degree completion program.

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In any case, your first step will be to get a hold of any previous transcripts — call your former school or check their website to find out how to request them. You may have to pay a small fee. The federal Student Aid Commission website also has fact sheets on obtaining transcripts from higher education institutions that have closed down. Next, book an appointment with a counselor at the school you’re interested in, and they can examine all the courses you took to determine whether you have transferable credits. If you don’t know how to get an appointment with a counselor directly, get in touch with an admissions or outreach officer and they can direct you.

Talking to a counselor is the best way to get accurate information and make sure your transfer goes through, but websites like Transferology and can also give you an initial idea of how your courses might transfer. There’s also Assist, specifically for information on transferring between California public colleges.

Do I get any credit for work or life experience?

Yes, in some cases.

Some schools have adopted what’s known as a Credit for Prior Learning program, which means they validate potential students’ previous work and life experience as credits toward an academic program. These are going to work differently at each school, so you can contact a school’s admissions office for more specifics, or bring your CV or resume to a counselor and ask them to evaluate your experience.Some of the primary ways your experience may transfer:

Previous certifications or corporate training programs: If you earned an industry-recognized certification or took a training course from an employer, schools may accept these as credits toward a program in a similar area of study. Many schools use credit guidelines outlined by the American Council on Education (ACE).

Military experience: Work experience and training from the military can count as college credits, too. You’ll have to request a Joint Services Transcript and present that to the school you’re interested in so they can evaluate what’s transferable.

Portfolios: Some schools allow you to submit a portfolio demonstrating your past experiences and how they might equate to college-level learning. This is where you can include things like volunteering, political activities, previous work, and life experiences. Be sure to contact a school first to see whether this is something they’ll accept and what kind of guidelines they have for portfolios. Some schools will require you to enroll in a course on how to put together your portfolio before they’ll accept one. As an example, see Biola University’s requirements.

What are other ways to get credits?

Take a test to prove your knowledge: Many schools will allow you to “test out” of certain courses. High schoolers can take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams that, if passed, can count toward college credits.

If those exams aren’t an option for you, you can look into tests like the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), which are available for subjects such as foreign languages, mathematics, composition and literature, business, and social studies, among others.

Not every school accepts every CLEP exam as college credit, and some schools won’t accept CLEP exams at all, so you’ll need to check with a school before you decide to go this route. For instance, CLEP exam credits are not accepted at UCs, but some are accepted at California community colleges and CSUs.

Dual enrollment: If you’re still in high school, or finishing up your high school diploma, you may be able to earn college credits at the same time. In California, high schoolers can enroll in any community college and fill out a dual enrollment form that will allow them to attend for free. The only requirement is that they must be taking fewer than 12 college units.The Career Online High School program, which allows adults to complete high school coursework online, also gives you the option to complete a certificate in a number of subject areas.

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