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Didn’t Finish College And Thinking Of Going Back? How To See If Your Credits Will Transfer

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Read more about your options in higher education in our guide, How To Get To College In California.

Going back to school is a big decision. If you’ve already taken some higher education classes, you might not want to start again from scratch. So what can you do to make those credits count? Here are a few options to consider.

(Note: This is part of our guide to navigating the higher education landscape, How To Get To College In California. Check out the full guide, which includes an overview of all the types of schools in the state, where to find data about what kinds of jobs students get after graduating, how to find on-campus child care, and a lot more.) 

Will college credits you earned a long time ago transfer? The answer depends on a few things:

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  • 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

In general, college credits don’t expire, so if you took a math class 15 years ago there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t still count today. But school requirements for particular degrees do change all the time.

In any case, your first step will be to get 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. 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 CollegeTransfer.net 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.

If you previously went to a school that was regionally accredited (as is the case with all of California’s public schools and most four-year private schools), you’ll likely be able to transfer those credits to a different school that is also regionally accredited — but again, whether they count toward specific degrees really depends on the school. But if you went to a nationally accredited school (more common among for-profit schools), chances are you will not be able to transfer those credits to a regionally accredited school. Again, check with a counselor to see where things stand.

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 some cases, you can also get credit for work or life experience. 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.

If you have an associate degree from a community college and are trying to transfer those credits to a four-year degree, there are certain established pathways to do that, too, especially if you’re aiming to go to a CSU or UC. LAist has a guide for that, but a good general first step is: see a transfer counselor. (Side note: Gov. Newsom recently signed a law to make transfers from community college to CSU or UC much more streamlined, so stay tuned for those changes to kick in in the coming years.) 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, and 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

If you’re interested in other ways to claim as many credits as possible before you enroll, many schools will allow you to “test out” of certain courses. One test, the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), is 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.

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