What to Know About Transferring From a Community College

 and U.S. News & World Report

Bachelor’s degrees are not commonly offered at community colleges, so for many students, community college is only the first stop in their educational journey. (GETTY IMAGES)

For many students, community college is only the first stop in their educational journey.

Bachelor’s degrees are not commonly offered at community colleges, so depending on a student’s intended career pathway, transferring to a four-year institution is often necessary. But while 80% of community college students are interested in getting a bachelor’s degree, only 14% actually attain one within six years of community college entry, according to a recent report


from the American Talent Initiative, a philanthropy-supported organization aimed at improving college access and graduation for students with low or moderate income.

“There’s this major gap between aspirations and outcomes,” says Tania LaViolet, director of the bachelor’s attainment portfolio at the Aspen College Excellence Program and one of the study’s authors.

Barriers such as credit transfer, cost of attendance and lack of support often inhibit a student’s ability to transfer. In addition to the academic adjustment, students also tend to have a difficult time acclimating socially when transferring from a two-year school to a four-year school, experts say.

This is especially true for first-generation college students, says Gail Gibson, executive director of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative, a national network of colleges that focus on support for first-gen college students. For these students, transferring can feel “like being on the moon because it’s so unfamiliar from the experience they had, maybe really successfully, at the community college,” she says.

“Just the process of transferring from one institution to the next has its own layer of bureaucracy and complication,” she says. “What credits transfer and what credits don’t? Who do I need to see at each of these institutions to be successful in terms of making that transfer equation happen? There are these spots where, too often, the student who doesn’t have a lot of skill in navigating that is going to fall through the cracks.”

It’s important for students to find someone to help them navigate the transfer process, conduct research and choose a school that aligns with their financial aid needs. Here’s what community college students need to know about transferring to a four-year college or university.

Process of Transferring to a Four-Year School

Though requirements vary at each institution, the application process for transfer and first-year students are often similar.

Some schools accept the Common Application for transfer students, for instance, while others may have their own application-specific for transfers. Document requirements typically include an essay, high school or community college transcript, letters of recommendation and test scores, if applicable.

In some cases, community college students are guaranteed admission at select institutions under an articulation agreement – a partnership between multiple colleges and universities to ease the transfer process. Some articulation agreements focus solely on course equivalencies to ensure that students’ credits are transferrable.

Unlike first-year college students, transfer students typically have one deadline or rolling admissions. Some schools require students to be enrolled in college for a certain amount of time before qualifying to transfer.

What Is a Reverse Transfer?

Many students transfer to a four-year school from a community college before completing an associate degree. But there is still an option to earn that degree, known as a reverse transfer.

Once a student takes all of the credits at their four-year institution required for an associate degree, they can send their transcript back to the community college to receive that credential. A bachelor’s degree does not necessarily need to be attained first.

Several states have reverse transfer policies set in legislation. Transfer students from a public community college in Illinois, for instance, can participate in a reverse transfer program. Students must have completed at least 15 semester hours at a public community college in the state and earned 60 semester hours of college credit.

Transfer Tips for Community College Students

Be Immersed on Campus

Students who arrive as first-year freshmen can participate in orientation and other events that help acclimate students socially to their new environment. Students who transfer from a community college and arrive at a four-year university as a junior have much less runway to get situated socially and find community in clubs or organizations.

“Our research and others show that transfer students feel more of a sense of belonging at community colleges than they do when they get to a four-year school,” says Alexandra Logue, a research professor in the Center for Advanced Study in Education of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “It can be really difficult for them as a result.”

Meelod Waheed, who transferred from Northern Virginia Community College to Pomona College, a four-year university in California, says the social aspect was one of the biggest hurdles for him. He remembers being grouped with first-year freshmen during orientation instead of others in his cohort.

Waheed advocates for schools to implement orientation specifically for transfer students. He started a transfer club at Pomona to help others like him feel more at ease and get plugged in socially.

“A lot of times you have to be the one to go out and be the one to say, ‘I want to join this club, or do this or do that,’” he says. “It’s about taking initiative.”

Also, find courses that are academically challenging, interesting and exciting. Take the time to build relationships with professors, as they can often be a resource during the transfer process.

Find a Mentor

Thirty percent of students lose at least a quarter of their existing academic credit during the transfer process, according to a report from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and StraighterLine, a platform that partners with colleges to support student enrollment and graduation.

Even students at schools with articulation agreements should be aware that these agreements can change frequently or end abruptly when colleges change their course catalog or degree requirements. This may lead to transfer credits not being counted or treated as elective credits that don’t count toward general education or major requirements, Logue says.

Figuring out credit transfers can be confusing, so experts advise community college students to find a mentor – such as a faculty member or academic adviser – in their first semester to help with understanding the process and courses that typically transfer.

Try to have a good faculty mentor, somebody to talk to about what those next steps look like, and then maybe that mentor can bridge an opportunity with a faculty member at the receiving institution,” says Jerrett Phillips, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Cameron University in Oklahoma.

Do Research

Before narrowing down a list of schools to transfer to, students should understand their career, academic, and life goals.

“Try to map backwards from there the academic path that you need to take in order to reach those goals,” LaViolet says. “Do that work first so that when you’re talking to your adviser, they’re able to provide guidance that aligns with those goals.”

Visiting the campus in person or virtually may help students determine if a college is the right fit. To learn more about a school, community college students can also get in touch with current students.

Find a Financial Fit

A public community college is usually more affordable. The average tuition price at a public community college for in-district students is about $3,990 annually for the 2023-2024 school year, while annual average costs at four-year institutions range from about $11,260 for in-state tuition at public schools up to nearly $42,000 at private nonprofit universities, according to the College Board.

However, students should look beyond the sticker price, as they often pay less than what’s advertised, experts say.

Transfer students can apply for financial aid, in most cases, by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Students should also be aware that their financial aid doesn’t automatically transfer with them to their new school and may change, particularly as it relates to scholarships and grants.

Though not common, some schools offer scholarships specifically for transfer students. The University of Maryland offers several transfer scholarships ranging from $5,000 to full tuition.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips, news and more in the U.S. News Paying for Community College center.