Transfer credit

A transfer credit is a representation of courses completed that students can use to meet degree or certification requirements when transferring from one college or university to another.

A transfer credit represents a course or set of academic courses that students are able to use to meet degree requirements between two colleges or universities. When it works efficiently, the transfer credit process can help students save money and time when completing their degree. However, pitfalls and inconsistencies can also hinder transfer students and prolong their degree completion timeline. 

What Are Transfer Credits?

During a college transfer, schools can award credit for coursework completed at other academic institutions. Students can utilize transfer credits when transferring from one four-year college or university to another, or when transferring from two-year colleges or community colleges to a four-year college or university. Requirements for a transfer course often include earning a minimum grade (usually a letter grade of a C or higher) in a course that covers similar or the same content as a course offered at the college or university the student intends to transfer to. 

What Types of Challenges Do Prospective Transfer Students Face?

Challenges prospective students face when trying to transfer college credit include the impact the process can have on their time and money. A student’s time is affected by an inefficient college transfer process by forcing them to retake one or several courses that may cover material they have more or less already learned at another school. In addition to wasting their time, students must also spend more money to pay for the classes they are forced to essentially retake. This alone is a huge issue given the current state of student loan debt in America. According to Education Data, the average student owes approximately $37,338 in student loan debt.1  When students have to spend more money on school, this increases their chances of having to use a personal loan, installment loans, or even bad credit loans in order to pay for their education. Some of these loans may act as a debt trap and can also end up negatively affecting a student’s credit history, and may even cause bankruptcy in extreme cases. 

A Real-Life Example

William Kimani from Brockton, Massachusetts, is a perfect example of the struggles students can face when trying to use transfer courses to earn a college degree. Kimani took courses at a local community college while in high school and ended up graduating with an associate’s degree as well. However, when he tried to transfer to the University of Chicago, he unfortunately discovered that none of his completed courses would count towards his undergraduate degree. “It was quite painful,” Kimani says when explaining his reaction to the news. “I feel like the degree that I worked towards was a lot of work – a lot of effort.” The university sent Kimani a blunt email and offered no alternative solutions that may help Kimani utilize awarded credit from the courses he already completed. 

So now, unfortunately, Kimani has to take similar courses and complete similar work to receive credits he technically has already earned. He’ll have to pay for these courses and take the time to complete them, again. Kimani isn’t the only student to suffer the consequences of an inefficient transfer credit system. According to Inside Higher Education, students unfortunately lose an average of 43% of their credits when transferring.2 

International Transfer Credit Policies 

Transferring credits amongst regionally accredited institutions isn’t the only challenge transfer students face. Transfer credit issues are also a problem on an international level, between international institutions. When students study abroad and take courses overseas, they are not always guaranteed that those courses will count towards their degree program in their home country. The Canadian Bureau for International Education has identified some of the main challenges, and enabling conditions, and provided possible solutions for the transfer credit process on an international level.3 

ChallengeEnabling Conditions Examples of Successful Approaches 
Flexibility in Assessing Credit Strong agreement principles; institutions bear the risk.Students granted transfer credit based on partnership agreements, even with incomplete course outlines.
Timing of Credit Transfer Pre-approval process; flexibility for unexpected shifts.Formalized pre-approval process for credit transfer before international experience.
Transparency in Course Transferability Institutional commitment to maintain course transfer listings.Institutions making partnership course transfer listings widely available for academic planning.
Guidelines and Course Content Matching Systematic approach: 65-70% overlap in course content.Informed faculty establishing course-matching guidelines for consistent messaging.
Asymmetrical Course Credit Values Grouping or splitting courses to fit credit framework.ECTS credits bundled for equivalency in North American institutions.
Recognition of Learning Abroad Experiences Creation of a learning abroad course.Institutions offering online courses to prepare and help students reflect on their experience.
Prerequisites and Course Availability on Return Faculty involvement in transfer credit advice and academic pathway planning.Pathways developed to ensure learning abroad doesn’t delay graduation.

Disclaimer: The information provided in the chart above is a summarized interpretation of the content from the “Assessing Learning Abroad Transfer Credit” PDF from the Canadian Bureau for International Education and is intended for general informational purposes only. It may not encompass all details or nuances of the original document and should not be solely relied upon for making decisions regarding educational policies or transfer credit processes.

Technological Advances in How Schools Recognize Transfer Courses

Previously, it was up to the individual institution if they wanted to accept the academic credentials of a prospective transfer student or not, but now, the process is becoming much more efficient. 

Traditionally, prospective transfer students would have to work with school administrators and provide resources to prove course equivalency. Students would have to gather documents like their course syllabi and assignments to show that the class they completed covered the same or similar content as the course work required for credits at other four-year institutions. Now, things are different. 

With the inclusion of online resources, and automated systems, transferring credits between four-year institutions is more streamlined now than ever. In many cases, students can use online systems to check if certain courses will transfer from one college to another, helping them avoid taking unnecessary classes and prioritizing transferable courses. 

Massive Open Online Courses

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are starting to play a huge role in helping students receive an education by taking classes that are guaranteed to act as transfer courses for many colleges and universities around the world. With MOOCs, students can use credits from the courses completed for degree programs at regionally accredited institutions all over the world, making higher education available to countless students.  

Policy Updates and the Future of Transfer Credits 

Thankfully, federal and state governments have taken actions to help transfer students utilize their completed courses. The goal is to make the transfer credit process more flexible and consistent for the convenience and well-being of all students. Currently, 38 states have what is called general education courses. These courses are guaranteed to transfer between all public postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, 25 states have initiated a statewide policy that helps guarantee the of an associate degree at public educational institutions.4 

FAQ: How Schools Track Courses Completed

Can I transfer credits from online courses to a traditional undergraduate degree program?

Yes, many universities accept transfer credits from accredited online courses toward an undergraduate degree. However, it’s important to check with the specific institution to ensure that the online course aligns with their curriculum and accreditation standards.

Are there limitations on how old my credits can be for them to be transferable?

Yes, some institutions have a “credit age” policy, typically allowing transfer of credits earned within the last 5-10 years. This is especially relevant for rapidly evolving fields like technology or science. It’s advisable to consult the admissions office of the receiving institution for their specific policies.

How do I know if my transfer course will be accepted by the university I am transferring to?

To ensure a transfer course will be accepted, you should first consult the transfer equivalency guides or articulation agreements that many universities have with community colleges. Additionally, meeting with an academic advisor at both institutions can provide clarity and guidance.

Is there a maximum number of credits I can transfer from community colleges to a four-year university?

Yes, most four-year universities set a limit on the number of credits that can be transferred from community colleges, often around 60-90 credits. This limit is in place to ensure that students complete a significant portion of their coursework at the university granting the degree.

Do pass/fail courses transfer the same way as graded courses?

Transfer policies for pass/fail courses vary by institution. Some universities may accept them as elective credits, while others might require a letter grade for transfer. It’s important to check the specific policies of the institution you’re transferring to.


  1. Average Student Loan Debt [2023]: by Year, Age & More | Education Data
  2. Holistic Credit Mobility: Centering Learning in Credential Completion | Higher Education Today
  3. Overcoming challenges in assessing learning abroad transfer credit | cbie
  4. The hidden costs of transferring to a four-year college | GBH
  5. Faculty and Credit Transfer | Inside Higher Education
  6. Learn About MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses | An edX Site
  7. Streamlining the Transfer of Credit Process | Higher Education Today

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