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5 ways to make transferring from a two-year college to a four-year college easier

These steps will help your student prepare for transferring schools.

If your student is planning on transferring to a four-year institution from their community college, they are not alone. In fact, 81% of all new, first-time community-college students wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to a January 2016 report from the Community College Research Center. However, only 33% of these students actually end up transferring to a four-year institution within six years. One reason is the lack of information and guidelines around the transfer process—from both the two and four-year institutions, says Stephen J. Handel, executive director of higher education at The College Board. These steps will help your student prepare for, and ultimately be successful in transferring.

1. Make a plan

“The first step [in transferring] for students: make a plan, even if it’s tentative,” Handel says. He stresses that a tentative plan, even if it changes, is better than no plan at all. Students should take the long-term view of their transfer plans when starting college. Students may ask: Well, what if I don’t know what I want to do? What if I change my mind? According to Handel, it doesn’t matter. All young people are trying to figure out what they are doing, and it’s okay if they change their mind. The point is for students to begin with a plan and start taking courses with a focus on meeting that goal. By doing so, they are gaining course credits that will likely be applied to general education if they do end up transferring. If students decide they want to transfer but don’t know where to start, they should try searching “community college pathways” online in their state to find out more information about transferring options from community colleges in the area.

2. Ask questions

Academic counselors are there to help your student at community colleges. Encourage your student to talk to them early. They will have advice about transferring, and help navigate the pathways to a four-year college. They can help your student pick an area of study early and give them advice on how to create a path towards transferring. Students should meet regularly with advisors so they get to know them. Students can ask important questions about transfer school options, how their credits will transfer, and other academic issues that come up. And part of asking questions is examining all of the options available to transfer students. Your student may have a particular school they want to transfer to, but it may not be the best choice for the degree they want to pursue. Counselors can help guide your student in the right direction. Handel also recommends getting in touch with transfer advisers at the admission offices of the four-year colleges the student is considering. There may be questions that only these advisors can answer, or information about the school that the student needs to know ahead of transfer.

Here are some questions that students should ask:

  • Does the two-year college have a special transfer relationship (often called an articulation agreement) with any four-year colleges?
  • Will the credits I earn be accepted at the four-year colleges I’m considering?
  • What grades do I need to earn in my classes to get credit at the four-year colleges?
  • What’s the minimum GPA I need to maintain to get into the four-year colleges?
  • What general education courses are best to take for transfer if I do not know exactly what I want to do yet?
  • How will I finance my education after transferring to a four-year college?

3. Make grades a priority

Students need to stay focused at their community college. Remember, the four-year institutions that community college students are transferring to consider grades as one of the important criteria for admission, so they must work hard to keep them up. “Community college is college,” Handel says. “Parents and students should not treat the academic requirements at these institutions lightly.” This will also help establish your student academically and prepare them for the four year environment. Grades play a big role in this, and students should not blow off their studies or underestimate the rigor of community college classes.

4. Apply for financial aid

Even though community colleges are significantly less expensive than most four-year colleges or universities, you and your student should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). When a student transfers, they must make sure to fill out the FAFSA again. It is also a good idea for students to contact the university or college that they are transferring to and ask about scholarships that may have been set aside for transfer students, as many institutions do have these available.

5. Understand course and credit transfer

Immediately when enrolling for community college courses, students need to do some research about how they will transfer or if they will transfer. As mentioned above, this includes making a plan and talking with advisors. This will help when trying to understand how and if courses will transfer to the four-year institution. If enough courses transfer, the student will start at the four-year college as a junior, after already completing two years of community college. Rock says a common misconception among students is that you complete your two-year degree at a community college and then go on for an additional four years at the four-year college. “They don’t realize it can be a seamless process where their credits transfer and they only spend an additional two years to get their degree,” Rock says. However, sometimes students may not get credit for all of the courses and may have to repeat some at the four-year college. This depends on each institution’s policies on credit transfers. Generally, students earn about 60 credits when they get their associate degree and 120 credits when they get their bachelor’s degree. When students graduate from the four-year college, only the name of the four-year college will appear on the bachelor’s degree.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Stephen Handel, Executive Director, Higher Education, The College Board and Wendy Rock, Assistant Professor of Counseling, Southeastern Louisiana University.