How to transition from a community college to a four-year institution

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 19, 2023

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By Kara Battle and Ben Coulter

Oct. 16-20 is National Transfer Student Week, as promoted by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NIST), located at the University of North Georgia. This is a week to celebrate transfer students and the professionals who support them on their journeys.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, around one-third of college students transfer between schools before earning their degree. Data analyzed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities reveals that community college transfers represent around 15 percent of new enrollments at four-year institutions.

In North Carolina, the state’s community college system represents 58 individual campuses offering associate degrees and other professional certifications for learners seeking quick entry into the job market or an eventual transfer to a four-year institution. 

It can be challenging to navigate the transfer process and to know what four-year institutions are looking for in a transfer student. Here are five practical tips to note if you’re considering a transfer:

  1.  Maintain a good GPA

This one seems obvious, but academic excellence should be at the forefront while attending community college. Typically, a “good GPA” is around 3.0, indicating a “B” average. Apply yourself to achieve good grades and a sound academic record.

  1. Maximize your transferable credits by earning your associate degree

Credit-transfer agreements (often called “articulation” agreements) designate which of the two-year college credits you’ve earned can be transferred to another institution. These agreements can streamline the transfer process and clarify course equivalencies. You’ll want to know which of your credits will be accepted by the institution you are considering attending, and most colleges/universities publish these agreements on their website. Many, if not all, credits you’ve earned through an accredited associate degree program can often count toward a bachelor’s degree. The bottom line to maximizing your credit transfer is to complete your associate degree.

  1. Find the right institution for you

Depending on your field of study and career goals, you’ll eventually need to narrow your search and ultimately identify the four-year college or university to which you want to transfer. Make a list of preferred factors for your new school. Determine whether you want to attend online, in-person or both. Determine the non-negotiable cost limit you can afford and if you are willing to take out loans. If going in-person, what kind of social life do you hope to have? Do you prefer to follow a specific class schedule or to accelerate at your own pace? These and many more are quality-of-program questions to ask before you make a final decision on where to transfer.

  1. Speak with counselors and advisers

You likely already have an academic adviser, admissions counselor or transfer advisor at your community college. Regularly meet with these professionals at your community college and at potential transfer institutions to ensure you are fulfilling the necessary requirements and coursework for a smooth transfer. These professionals have devoted their lives to understanding the process of higher education, both academically and logistically. Make full use of their expertise and schedule meetings with them. 

  1. Review financial aid options

One of the great benefits of attending a community college is the relatively low cost compared to other two- and four-year institutions. Not only is federal student aid available (fill out that FAFSA!), but there are scholarships and grants available through community organizations and other groups that support women, BIPOC students, specific professions, local residents and more. Ensure you meet application deadlines and requirements for these opportunities, and check if your employer has a tuition assistance plan. 

Transferring from a community college to a four-year institution can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. There are resources available to streamline the process. During National Transfer Student Week, we acknowledge and celebrate the work of academic counselors, success coaches, faculty, staff and all who are helping students successfully transfer to another college or university to continue their education journey. 

Kara A. Battle, Ed.D., is vice president and chief academic officer at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. 

Ben Coulter, Ed.D., is southeast regional director for Western Governors University, an accredited nonprofit online university, and serves as chancellor of WGU North Carolina.