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Thinking About Transferring Schools? Read This First

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The old adage about the grass being greener on the other side is often a cautionary tale — but when it comes to colleges, what if it’s actually true?

More than a third of college students transfer schools at some point during their college career, many of them — about 25% — making a big change and transferring out of state.

“I do think it is not uncommon for students to decide to transfer,” said Elizabeth Heaton, vice president of educational counseling at Bright of Horizons College Coach and a former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania. “As the world has opened up, people have realized there is a lot more out there than simply the college next door.”

It’s how, why, and when a student transfers that can make the difference between a successful and seamless switch versus losing course credits, taking on additional debt and delaying graduation.

Here’s a checklist to consider before transferring schools.

The Impact of a Transferring Colleges on Your Finances

Whether you are transferring to a less expensive school, a university that’s closer to home, or going from a two-year college to a four-year college, there is going to be an impact on your finances and, possibly, your student debt load.

Spending less money

“I think people take a cold hard look at the financials after a year or two and start realizing, ‘We’re taking on more debt than we thought we were going to and we need to be smarter here,’” Heaton said. 

She has seen some freshman students realize that working their way through college and earning enough to keep going isn’t a reality. She’s also seen parents realize that the debt load they are taking on is too much in addition to a mortgage and saving for retirement.

Transferring to an in-state school is one option that could save money in tuition and room and board if your starting school was out of state. The average on campus room and board at a public, four-year school is about $11,500 per year, while the average room and board at a private, four-year school is nearly $13,000.

“If you have a cheaper option that’s closer to home,” Heaton said. “I do think that’s going to be a decision that people are going to have to make, given the economic state we are in as a country and we don’t really know this is where it’s heading.”

Spending more money

Transferring to a bigger university or one that is out of state may mean more money and, potentially, more student loan debt.

In that case, there are several things you can do to keep the financial impact to a minimum:

  • Consider consolidating or refinancing your student loan to accommodate the added expense and save money from a lower interest rate. 
  • Consider living at home, if possible, or sharing an off-campus apartment with roommates to cut down on the room and board at your new school.
  • Talk to the financial aid office at the new school to see what additional scholarships, financial aid, tuition assistance or work-study programs you may qualify for. 

Make Sure Your Credits Transfer with You

One of the first considerations before you transfer is to find how many of the courses you’ve already taken (and paid for) will apply toward graduation at your new school.

A 2017 report found that transfer students lost an average of 13 credits during the transfer process, or about a semester’s worth of courses if they are full-time students.

“Part of the work of the student is to look at what they have accomplished in the credits they have already earned and what the school is looking for when they evaluate transfer applicants,” Heaton said.

You can find out which credits your new school will accept by checking the school’s website or speaking with the college admissions officer.

One workaround, Heaton said, is to use the time you have left at your old school, such as riding out the remainder of your current college year or doing your first two years at a community college, to enroll in classes you know for certain that the transfer school will accept.

If you transfer to a school that accepts very few of your already-earned credits, you will pay significantly more money and push back your graduation date.

Credit transfers can sometimes work in your financial favor. If you are starting out at a less expensive school or a community college with hopes to transfer to a larger university, getting your core classes out of the way for less money would work to your advantage, provided you are certain that the next school will accept the credits.

When to Transfer Colleges

There are many reasons why students choose to transfer out of their initial choice, including financial concerns, a change in majors, or less than ideal culture fit. But when you transfer and how you approach it can make the switch a lot less stressful.

Your best bet for a successful, low-impact transfer is to do so at the beginning of your college career, rather than the end, as you may have an easier time with transfer credits. 

“If you transfer after one year, it’s a little less likely you will be asked to declare your major,” Heaton said, and that will allow you to make the most out of the college credits you have already earned since many freshman courses are core classes, rather than specific to your school or bachelor’s degree. 

Be aware of any application deadlines for transfer students that might be different than other college applications. 

What do You Need to Transfer Colleges?

Like applying to school the first time, each school will have different requirements for applying. The following are common requirements for a college transfer application: 

  • Your current college transcript
  • Letter of recommendation
  • An application essay 

You may still need to send your high school transcripts and SAT/ACT test scores. As always, you should include your FAFSA with your transfer application.

Make the most out of your transfer application essay

“It’s very tempting in that moment to point to everything you hate about where you are. But they’re not really asking you that,” Heaton said. “What they want to know is what is it that you are searching for that you aren’t finding and tell us how you are finding that here.”

Heaton had a client realize soon after starting school that she wanted a bachelor’s in a particular language, but her current school had only one professor and a limited amount of classes.

“In her situation, she needed a new college because she needed a bigger department with a lot more opportunities and coursework in her area of interest,” Heaton said, so her essay focused not on what she was lacking at her first school, but rather all the classes, professors and opportunities that her transfer school had to offer. 

Talk to Admissions Officers about the School’s ‘Transfer Culture’

Before filling out a transfer application and early in your college search, reach out to the admissions (or transfer admissions) office of a potential new school to ask about that school’s transfer culture and the admissions process. 

“A lot of it is doing some good research,” Heaton said. “What is the acceptance rate and what do they do for transfers? Is there an actual orientation or academic advisor for transfer students? What is the coursework like for your intended degree program? Are you going to get to know your fellow transfer students?”

Potential transfer students headed to any school should consider what type of support they would need to feel at home. Heaton pointed to UCLA as a school with a large and extremely transfer-friendly culture, a community some students find necessary for their college experience.

Are you the kind of student that can dive in and confidently find your way around and make friends with current students at any prospective school? Or would it be more helpful to meet new people in the same situation?

Know Why You are Considering a Different School

Why do you want to make this transfer? Are you homesick? Did your first year not live up to expectations? Are you too close to home for your liking? Are you worried about your student loan debt? Are you switching your major? Do you hate that you can’t get good sushi near your school?

While there are some easily quantifiable reasons to transfer schools, such as finances or a major that doesn’t exist at your starting school, some schools are simply a bad fit either academically or socially. And that’s okay.

“Is it really the allure of the new school or are there things at their current school that aren’t providing for them? Heaton said. “I think it’s really important for students to be honest with themselves about why they want to transfer.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.