The Transfer Student’s Guide to Selecting an Online College

As an undergraduate, it’s not terribly uncommon to end up needing to transfer credits of some sort. Perhaps you earned general education credits at a community college or online school, and now you are seeking to complete your degree at a brick-and-mortar university. Or maybe you started a degree years ago and would now like to pick up where you left off with an online college.

Enrollment in online degree programs continues to grow, so transferring credits between online and offline schools has become quite common. Students with associate degrees often decide to pursue a bachelor’s in the same subject. This is a typical transfer-credit scenario. Another student may have found their high school performance prevented them from gaining admission to their college of choice, and so they end up attending an online school to earn the qualifications needed to get into the school.

Personal histories vary, but the rules for transferring credits in and out of online degree programs are fairly consistent. Using existing credits keeps you from having to repeat classes, and it makes good financial sense. Every credit hour you’ve earned represents money and time you’ve spent, so it’s best to consider all your options before you choose a new school. The resources below cover the essentials for choosing and transferring your education to an online college or university.

Online educational options are abundant, and it makes sense to perform due diligence before you select a school. Not all online schools operate with your best interest in mind, so you should be aware of potential pitfalls. Your educational history and specific goals also impact your number of choices. When you’re assessing your options for online programs, ask yourself these questions:

Is the school accredited?

Accreditation is a key element for an online school, especially when you’re considering transferring credits. Accredited institutions do not accept credit from unaccredited schools. Take note whether accreditation is regional or national, as well. Schools that are accredited by a less stringent granting body than others may leave you with useless credit hours.
The U.S. Department of Education maintains a directory of all reputable accredited programs; make sure your school is in there or you’ll risk wasting your time and money.

Is the school ranked?

College rankings are a useful way to gauge the standing of an online program. OEDB publishes some of the most comprehensive lists of online programs by field of study. Everything from online nursing programs to criminal justice degrees are ranked according to criteria that matter most, including program cost, financial aid, acceptance rate, and job placement. To learn more, check out the Rankings section of our site.

The U.S. News & World Report also ranks online schools every year, and is generally considered one of the most trustworthy resources for academic rankings. You may also access the U.S. Dept. of Education’s College Navigator tool, which provides unbiased, factual data about every school in its database.

Is information about credit transfers readily available?

Online academic institutions understand students demand flexibility, and that many will begin a degree program online and then complete it elsewhere, or vice versa. Information about transfer credits and accreditation should be easily accessed on a school’s website; if you find yourself digging around to locate this information, it could be a red flag. The most transparent schools offer an online tool that estimates which of your credits will transfer.

Is the school’s marketing information backed up by data?

Other useful information about a school might include the percentage of students who complete their degree programs, the percentage of grads who are gainfully employed or testimonials from former students. Evaluate whether this data is easily reproduced or attributed, and question the sources of information you see. If something looks fishy, it may well be, but if you can replicate the data elsewhere, the school is one you can trust.

How advanced are the classes I’ve already taken?

When moving between schools, your odds of having credits transfer are much better for introductory-level classes. All degree programs advance in complexity over time; the earlier in a program you take a class, the greater the likelihood it will be accepted for transfer. Some degree programs also refuse to grant course credits for core requirements in a major, though they will accept general education class credits.

Does the school have a residency requirement?

While this question may not sound relevant to a discussion of online degree programs, it doesn’t refer to your physical address. A residency requirement is a minimum number of classes a student must take from a school in order to be awarded a degree. A standard requirement is 30 hours, or the equivalent of 10 courses, toward a bachelor’s. Some online schools, however, require as many as half of your credit hours be earned under their faculty’s supervision; transferring into these programs is best done earlier rather than later.

Lastly, most students transferring in or out of online schools are most successful by interacting with admissions counselors. Arrange a meeting with a counselor at your current or old school and explore your options. This professional can collaborate with the admissions department at your new school and perhaps uncover additional ways to maximize your investment. For example, some schools grant credits for lifetime experience or allow students to take proficiency exams and test out of some subjects.

To continue your research on transferring to an online school, the Open Education Database (OEDb) offers a customizable college search tool. Search the results to find backgrounds and accreditation status for specific programs. You’ll find profiles for over 1,500 schools in the U.S. and more information about credit transfers.