More students are arriving on the nation’s campuses with an open mind about their pathway to a bachelor’s degree. Nearly a quarter of entering students at four-year colleges and universities think there is either “some” or a “very good” chance they will transfer, according the annual Freshman Survey, released earlier this month by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Another one-third of freshmen say they will need extra time to complete their degree.
Students switch colleges for a variety of personal reasons. But transferring between colleges also is becoming a deliberate path many students choose before they even start as freshmen, largely as a strategy to save money. These students are often known as “swirling” through college.
The most common swirling path to a bachelor’s degree, of course, is one that starts at a less-expensive two-year community college, an approach that is becoming a lot more common. One-third of students now transfer from one college to another before earning a degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Almost half of the graduates of four-year schools in 2010-2011 had attended a two-year college first.
And it’s not just low-income students struggling to afford higher education who are choosing to stop at a two-year college on their way to a bachelor’s degree. A quarter of students at community colleges now come from families earning more than $100,000 a year.
The problem is that for many students, switching colleges could end up costing them and their families more in the long run. Until recently, most four-year colleges and universities haven’t made it easy for students to transfer. Colleges lose revenue when they accept credits from other schools. So they are known to reject credits students try to bring with them from other colleges and instead make the students take the courses over again — forcing them to pay tuition for those credits to the new school.
The credit transfer business in higher education is arbitrary at best. Credits awarded at a community college might be accepted by a public university across the state, but not one in the same town. Nearly half of all transfer students lose some or every single one of their credits when they switch schools. This is why students who transfer often rack up more credits than they need to graduate. The average college graduate earns a total of 134 credits for a 120-credit bachelor’s degree, according to Complete College America.
But some colleges increasingly view transfer students as a way to fill empty seats, and as a result, are making it easier for students to bring credits with them. Before you transfer schools, be sure to do your homework about how many of your credits will transfer. And if you’re a parent of a high-school student relieved the college search process is almost over, think again. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll need to do this all over again next year with your college freshman.