How to Transfer From Community College to University?

The success of transferring credits from community college to university depends on planning. Our in-depth guide helps you guarantee transfers.
Transferring from community college to university is not as difficult as most people think it is. This in-depth guide will show you exactly how to plan and transfer to the university of your choice.
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While it is not difficult to transfer from a 2-year associate’s degree program to a 4-year university bachelor’s degree program, there are critical steps that you need to follow. Missing them will create complications and may even render your entire two years of community college untransferable.

Don’t worry though, in this guide we have you completely covered from the planning to the transfer stages and of course, everything in between. So let’s get started on taking the first step to your transfer to a university.

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What exactly is required to transfer from a community college to a university?

In one word… planning. You need to plan your transfer even before you choose the community college you want to get into. The simple reason for this is that not every university will accept transfer credits from every community college.

Imagine going through college and finding out that the one or two years of effort you just put in have gone to waste!

This is why planning ahead for transfer credits is very important.

But first, because it is important for our discussion ahead, those of us who are not completely clear on the difference between a community college and a university should read the next section.

A community college classroom
Photo by serhii-bobyk from Freepik

What’s the difference between a university and a community college?

The key difference between a community college and a university is the duration of the programs they offer. 

Most community colleges offer a maximum of a two-year degree program, while universities offer four-year programs.

Now there are exceptions to the rule, and in rare instances, a community college might offer a four-year program. This is what confuses some students in differentiating between the two.

When they do offer a four-year program, however, most community colleges offer it as an extension to their associate’s degree. 

This means that a student will normally complete their associate’s degree first, in order to be eligible for a bachelor’s program at that same community college. 

Another thing to note is that community colleges have limited bachelor’s programs available. This is because their focus is to offer courses that can place students directly into the workforce in a relatively short time.

When they do offer bachelor’s degree courses at community colleges, they are usually profession-oriented for this very reason. Typical examples include specific fields like nursing, information technology, and radiology.

For the most part, however, a community college is known for its short-term certificate and associate’s degree programs.

Related: Can Community College Students Transfer to Ivy League?

Why start with a community college?

The next obvious question that comes to mind is why even bother to go to community college first if we are aiming to get a bachelor’s degree from a university?

Well, as it turns out more and more American students are choosing to go to community college because of the many benefits they offer.

NCSES (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics) reports that more than half (52%) had previously attended a community college and 25% had earned an associate’s degree from a community college. 

Benefits of community college

No student will get excited by the idea of being burdened with crippling student loans for decades! 

While the typical student loan is supposed to take 10 years to pay off at the time of signing the loan, research has shown that, in fact, it takes 21 years for the average American student to pay it off completely.

According to ramseysolutions.com Americans have dug themselves into $1.48 trillion of student debts.

Community college offers a great solution as it costs a tenth of what a university does. If you get your associate’s degree at the community college and then transfer straight into the third year at a university, it will save you a lot of money.

While affordability is one of the major reasons, it’s not the only one. I have listed below three of the top reasons why Americans are choosing to go to community college. We also have a great article that has a full list of benefits that you should go through. 

Affordability 

Consider the average tuition fee at a community college which is $3,440. Now, compare that to the tuition at an average private university which will cost you $32,410. Here is a great article on free community colleges.

Just looking at these figures, community colleges start making sense already. So the best plan is to spend 2 years at community college then transfer to university.

Admissions are easier

Admissions to community colleges are much easier than universities. T

his is true because, by their very nature, community colleges are meant to help the communities around them. In most cases, if you have a 2.0 or higher GPA at a High School you will simply be admitted.

Even in cases where your GPA is not that great, you can make a case for yourself and you might still be accepted with the addition of taking some remedial classes. 

In fact, many students who can’t get into universities because of their grades tend to go to community colleges to get a second chance at working hard and improving their GPA. This will greatly improve their chances of getting into a university.

Related: Do Community Colleges Care About My GPA?

Flexible schedule

Community colleges are a very American concept and were built by the federal government to primarily support the communities around them. 

This is what makes them unique because they offer an opportunity for education to those who would otherwise not have access to it.

This allows non-traditional students such as young parents, full-time or part-time employees, and students with difficult circumstances to receive an education. Around 60% of students studying at community colleges are part-time students. 

A normal university is simply not flexible to the needs of such students. For example, community colleges also give students the option of taking classes during the day or in the evenings.

Smaller class sizes more conducive to learning

Some students prefer large university campuses with huge classes, but for some students, this environment is less conducive to learning.

Full-time or part-time employees, parents, and people with similar backgrounds are too busy juggling real-life issues to be part of a typical university system. This is why they prefer smaller classes with easy access to teachers! 

The average community college has 25 to 35 students compared to a university class which may have anywhere from 150 to 300. So, not only are the classes designed to increase student-teacher engagement, but community college instructors are more sympathetic to their struggles as well.

Related: Best Community Colleges For Business

Students at a Community College library
Photo by Freeograph from Freepik


Will a university accept my community college credits?

With the right planning, yes it will! 

So what do we mean by planning? Well, you simply have to understand that different universities have varying degrees of understanding with different community colleges.

Some universities will accept partial credits, some will accept full credits and some might not accept any. All you have to do is to plan and see which university will accept most or all the credits that you plan to get at community college.

You need to work closely with the academic advisor at both the community college and the universities that you plan to attend. These advisors are professionals trained to help you get the best out of your transfer.

In some cases, universities that you want to attend will recommend a community college that they prefer and in some cases, community colleges that you prefer might refer you to universities that they have an understanding with.

This understanding between a university and a college is called an articulation agreement… but more on that soon.

Once you complete your associate’s degree program at the community college after two years, you can directly join the university as a junior in the third year of their four-year bachelor’s program. 

If you studied the typical fees we shared for both community college and university earlier, you can easily make out the savings you get.

Read: Find College Boring? Here’s How to Make It Exciting

What is an articulation agreement?

Many 2-year community colleges and 4-year universities have official written agreements between them specifically regarding the transfer of students. 

These arrangements are known as articulation agreements.

A very important step towards planning for your transfer is to understand what kind of an agreement exists between your target community college and your target university. 

This is not as complex as it sounds. 

It’s just a simple phone call or email to the college or university’s advisor asking them if there is an articulation agreement between the two.

The advisor will also let you know all the other colleges and universities they have an arrangement with if you enquire about it.

Unfortunately, not many students know about this basic fact and according to the U.S. News, students lost 43% of their credits while transferring to a university from a public college.

While this still gets them admitted into a university it results in both a loss of time and finance.

These lost credits normally end up requiring students to take more financial aid, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose of going to a community college first and then getting a transfer.

On the flip side of the coin, if you are smart and do your homework before signing up to a college, university, and even individual courses within those programs, you could end up saving a lot of money and gain peace of mind that the transfer credits are safe.

We have listed below the various kinds of articulation agreements that exist between educational institutions. This will help you understand how each type will affect your transfer outcome.

No articulation agreement

In this scenario, the college and the university you plan to attend do not have any sort of agreement between them. Needless to say that in this situation it will be the most difficult to transfer credits.

However, if you still want to transfer then you will have to ask your university to examine your course material from your college so that they can determine if it is up to their standards.

Usually, universities always have a limit to the transfer of credits from non-articulation agreement colleges. So, even if you get transfers they might be few and you might have to repeat some of the courses.

Unmudl Tip: If for any reason this is the only option that makes sense for you then a smart thing to do in this case is to get everything in writing from the university. 
Remember, that advisors and counselors change at universities. When an educational institution studies your specific case and puts the terms of transfer in writing they will honor it.
This will take out the element of any nasty surprises when you wrap up your associate’s degree and are ready for the transfer.

General articulation agreements

Universities that have matched the course content of community colleges and are satisfied that it meets their standards will normally sign a general articulation agreement. 

This of course makes it more likely that you will get a transfer of the credits you have earned in the community college. 

Just keep in mind that a general articulation agreement means that there is a course-to-course agreement between the two institutions.

It is entirely possible that a certain course that you want to take may not be part of the agreement. 

For example, the university may have a general articulation agreement for most courses at a specific community college but it does not include Nursing.

This happens when the university is not satisfied that the course material offered for a specific course is up to the university’s standards. 

So a good idea is to ensure that the course you are planning to take is covered in the general articulation agreement.

General education articulation agreements

When a university signs a general education articulation agreement with a college, it will accept all or most of the general education credits from that college. 

Usually speaking, this is the best possible outcome as most of the two years of effort that you put in will be credited when you apply to that university. 

When you join the university after completing your associate’s degree program, you will be likely directly admitted as a junior in the third year of the 4-year program.

Degree-to-degree articulation agreement

These unfortunately are very rare but are the gold standard of articulation agreements. Universities signing a Degree-to-degree Articulation accept all the credit hours without question.

When this agreement takes place the community college is called a “Feeder School” because all students coming out of the college are simply transferred directly to the university without question.

Again while this is the gold standard it is very rare and you should not depend on finding one in your state or for the course you are interested in.

Articulation agreements vary by state and the educational institutes concerned. Some states have widespread articulation agreements like Florida and California but in some states, they are not that common.

University Articulation agreement
Photo by Pressfoto from Freepik

What is a guaranteed transfer?

Some community colleges also have a guaranteed transfer agreement with select universities. The difference between an articulation agreement and a guaranteed transfer agreement is that the earlier is solely based on course material. 

A Guaranteed Transfer, on the other hand, is not just based on matching the standards of the course material but it extends to conditions the student must fulfill while doing his associate’s degree program.

These conditions could be about maintaining a certain GPA, completing a specific number of credits, doing some specific courses, etc. 

The conditions may also vary from course to course meaning the conditions for admissions to a 4-year nursing program might be very different than one to admission for business school.

Some excellent examples of guaranteed transfer institutions

We have noted down some excellent examples of institutions that partner in guaranteed transfers in various states. These transfers were all active at the time of publishing this article.

Feel free to browse them and see if any interest you. Just remember to check out any residency requirements if you plan to apply out of state.

California

California has the Transfer Agreement Guarantee (TAG) program for several universities in the state. You can check out the requirements here.

In addition, the California Community College network also offers ‘A Degree With a Guarantee,” program. All the participating institutions are listed here.

Even private universities like Loyola Marymount partner with some community colleges in California and Arizona to offer guaranteed transfers.

New York

The State University of New York (SUNY) with its numerous branches offers some of the best guaranteed transfer opportunities.

Maryland

The Maryland Transfer Advantage Program (MTAP), guarantees transfer from various Maryland community colleges.

Anne Arundel Community College, Prince George’s Community College, and Montgomery College are good examples of Maryland community colleges that offer guaranteed transfers to the University of Maryland and other universities in and out of state.

If you are interested in transfers within Maryland then Maryland’s Higher Education Commission offers a comprehensive guide for prospective students. Check it out here.

Washington, D.C.

The George Washington University, Georgetown University, and other universities in D.C. have guaranteed transfer agreements in place with several community colleges. 

Virginia

NOVA (North Virginia Community College) is the most respected institution when it comes to guaranteed credit transfers with other 4-year universities both in and out of state.

The website for the Virginia Community Colleges also has a separate page for all active guaranteed transfer agreements for the state.

Illinois

The College of Lake County offers guaranteed transfer to a long list of colleges and universities, both in and outside Illinois

Also take some time out to visit iTransfer, Illinois’ statewide transfer program. The website has a list of all participating colleges and universities.

How to find a school’s articulation agreement

You may be wondering how do I go about finding articulation agreements because they seem to vary so much from institution to institution and state to state. 

Well, the best way is always to reach out to your target universities by email or just calling them.

Each university can put you through to a relevant person who can tell you in detail what kind of agreements they already have in place with different community colleges.

A second option is to use an online search tool such as CollegeTransfer.net

This website will help you search for transfer agreements by state or by program and it is an excellent tool. Just keep in mind that articulation agreements change so don’t depend on the website completely. 

Use it to do your research in shortlisting target universities and colleges. 

But once you have shortlisted them do contact them yourself and confirm if the agreements are still valid and they have not changed in any way.

Step by step guide to getting your university transfer right

There are various ways to approach this situation. Ideally, you should start planning for your transfer while in the final year of your high school. You can start by talking to your high school academic advisors.

Post your graduation from high school you could approach academic advisors in community colleges around you who are professionally trained to help you with putting together a plan for postsecondary education.

We, however, feel the best way to approach the transfer plan is to start by focusing on your final goal. I have listed below steps that in my opinion are the best way to put together a solid transfer plan,... one that will result in a full transfer and a secure admission to the university of your choice.

1. Start with the end goal in mind - select a university(s)

Rather than selecting a college and then finding out what universities it will allow you to transfer to, you should start instead by picking the universities that best serve your graduation goals. 

For example, if you want to eventually work in IT, you should aim to have a bachelor’s degree from universities that have good and well-known programs for IT. Or, if you want to become a doctor, you want to shortlist universities that are known for their medical programs.

By focusing on the end first you eliminate any chance that you might end up in the wrong institution!

Start with web searches for universities in your area and in your state. Go through their websites to get all the information and a feel about the place.

Remember that universities that have articulation agreements usually also have trained transfer advisors for students. Talk to them. They will be the most important source of information in putting your plan together.

2. Find out about existing articulation agreements

Once you have a few universities targeted, start by talking to them. Whether it’s by email, phone, or by personal visits (always preferred if practical), ask them which community colleges they have articulation agreements within your area or state. 

Also, make it a point to ask them what kind of articulation agreements they have with them. Remember that we are trying to get the best possible outcome, so aim for agreements that guarantee full credit transfer

3. Inquire about all the pre-requisites for a guaranteed transfer

Some universities will simply take you on board if you graduated from a feeder college, but in most cases, you will probably end up with a university that sets prerequisite conditions for a guaranteed transfer.

As mentioned earlier these vary greatly from university to university and even within a university, from course to course. You might be asked to do a specific amount of credit hours in certain kinds of courses, maintain a certain GPA, complete specific courses, or even get a certain GPA in specific kinds of courses.

Whatever these conditions are, you have to know about them so that you don’t miss them. Failing to clear the prerequisites will result in either repeating courses in university or a worst-case scenario, not getting admission.

4. Pick a community college

Once you know which community colleges are best aligned with the university of your choice you need to have a chat with them. Talk to the education advisor at the community college.

Community colleges were designed to be stepping stones towards a professional career or university. This is why they are already geared up to help students who are planning to transfer after their associate’s degree. 

Besides all the usual inquiries, find out how many students successfully transferred their credits to the university you have selected.

Your final selection of community college should be the one that most closely guarantees a full credit transfer.

5. Attend an orientation session at your community college and if possible, at your future university

Getting information from a website or over the phone is good, but before you lock everything in place visit both the 2-year community college you are going to attend and the 4-year university you plan to transfer to.

Visiting a place, getting a feel of it and talking to existing students, looking at the amenities, all will help you decide if your decision is the right one. Sometimes things look good on paper and websites but they might not feel the same in real life.

This is an important decision for you so do the homework before locking everything in place.

These simple steps will help you put together a robust plan with a guaranteed outcome. Now there are some other things that we also need to discuss when talking about transfers, so let’s look at them.

Students attending an orientation session at a community college
Photo by pch-vector from Freepik

When should you transfer to university from your community college?

A lot of students ask how to transfer from community college to university in one year, or exactly when they should transfer to university from their community college. Should they do the full two years and get an associate’s degree or is it better to transfer mid-way?

The truth is, there is no single right answer. If you ask us, “Do I have to graduate from community college to transfer?” We will simply say each case is unique and your timing for transfer to university depends on many factors.

If the main reason for your coming to community college was to save on tuition, like it is in most cases, then it makes no sense to transfer early. 

You can save a lot of money by sticking to community college for two years and transferring only when your associate’s degree program is complete.

Also, if you are guaranteed a transfer through a solid articulation agreement, then your transfer is secure and there is no point in transferring early.

If you are in a situation where the articulation agreement allows you to transfer only certain credits or certain courses and nothing beyond that, then by all means you shouldn’t waste any further time at the college.

Sometimes, certain universities require you to take the bulk of the classes at their institution to graduate. In all such situations, you need to look at the point of getting the most out of your community college and then put in for the transfer.

Additionally, if you are wondering how many credits do you need to transfer from a community college to a university, then the answer is anywhere from 30 to 60. Your associate’s degree is worth 60 credit hours but you can transfer after one year worth of courses which are 30 credit hours.

So the answer to the question, ‘How long does it take to transfer from community college to university?’ is actually dependent on all the above variables.

Do online community college courses transfer to a university?

There was a time when online courses were not taken seriously. Many universities simply did not recognize them. But the Covid pandemic has turned the entire way we live, study, and work upside down.

Doing things online is now a norm and educating yourself is not an exception. Even if the pandemic dies down, and we hope it does soon, people might never go back to doing things the way they did traditionally.

Many non-traditional students like parents, full-time employees, people with responsibilities like ailing parents, or those living in remote areas have a solid case to continue education online. Colleges and universities now recognize this need and accept it.

Having said this, it is always smart to check with both the college and the university if they will transfer online credits. If there is an articulation agreement, then you need to find out if it covers online classes.

States like North Carolina have 16 public universities participating in the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement. If you complete your associate’s degree from an aligned community college, even if it is online, you will be accepted by the participating university.

Universities are more interested in the quality of your 2-year program rather than whether you are doing your course online or in-person. This is why it is especially important to do an online course from an accredited community college and one with an articulation agreement.

Will my credits expire if I take a break after my associate’s degree?

This is a very common question. 

Many students do not take a break because they want to chill out after college an they do so for real-life needs. The most common reason is to start earning urgently because of financial difficulties.

Once you have an associate’s degree in hand and there is a financial crisis on your hands it is very tempting to land a job and continue to university after a break. But this break inevitably gets extended longer and longer.

Students in similar situations then wonder how much of a shelf life do their transferable credits have? Well, there is no straight answer to this one either. It really depends on the course and institutions concerned.

On the face of it, credits are never supposed to expire, but even the most accepting of institutions do not usually transfer credits after 10 years. 

In cases where the nature of the course material evolves fast with time, such as in the case of IT or medicine, then they might expire even earlier.

Another problem is that articulation agreements also do not have a forever shelf-life. 

There have been cases like that of Southeastern University in Washington DC. Due to bad management and poor decision-making, the college lost all its accreditations over time. 

Eventually, it had to close down completely and students from the college struggled to transfer credits.

If you are planning on taking a break…

  1. Have a solid plan in place to return to the university by giving yourself a deadline. Living day-to-day you tend to miss out on this.
  2. Make sure you let your university know how long you are planning to take a break, and if they have any specific instructions for you.

Best colleges to transfer from

We have put down the 5 good community colleges to transfer from. This list keeps changing and evolving and by no means are these 5 colleges the only worthy ones to consider. 

1. Northwest Iowa Community College

NWICC was awarded 7th place by CNN Money’s list of best two-year schools for graduating or transferring. The school maintains articulation agreements with universities all across the Midwest.

2. Colorado Mountain College

As part of Colorado’s General Education Project, CMC guarantees credit transfer to prominent state colleges and universities. CMC also has the best transfer rate of any college in the state.

3. Santa Monica College

Santa Monica College has transferred more college students to universities than any other in the whole state of California. These universities include the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Berkeley.

4. Garden City Community College

Garden City Community College transfers about 400 students every year to universities like Kansas State University, University of Kansas, and Wichita State University. It also has a good rate of on-time program completion to boost.

5. De Anza College

CNN money ranked De Anza College as 10th on its list of community colleges with the best graduation and transfer rate. It is usually close behind Santa Monica College for transferring the most students in California.

Final Word

Using community college as a stepping stone to university is a good idea and more than 5.4 million students in America do this to save money and to avail other great benefits that community colleges offer.

However, you have to plan your journey from your 2-year community college to a 4-year bachelor’s program to make sure your time and money are not wasted. Different universities may or may not accept varying degrees of credits for transfers.

Our step-by-step guide will help you put a plan in place and ensure that your transfer is guaranteed. Best of luck with your transfers!

Frequently Asked Questions

How hard is it to transfer from community college to a university?

Is it good to transfer from a community college to a university?

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