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Online Degrees: Transfer Credit and Time to Completion


Last week, a prospective student wrote to me asking about how to “earn a degree online as quickly as possible.”

While I am not a proponent of program selection based solely on how long it will take to graduate, I do understand that there are situations in which program length can make a big difference. Working professionals seeking career advancement, for example, may need a degree to be considered for promotion. Those who earned a large number of academic credits many years ago may face a time crunch to resume a program or risk having to start over.

Online learning can be a great option in these situations. It is popular with working adults who need the convenience and flexibility of studying around other schedule demands, and you’ll find that many online programs are designed to assist with “degree completion” – they anticipate that you’ll apply with some previously earned credit.

These were the concerns of the student who wrote in – an adult learner, employed full-time, with over 100 credits on his academic transcript. These challenges are not unique, so I thought I would share my response here.

Matching Transcripts with Degree Plans

If you have completed college-level work in the past, getting transfer credit for those courses will be an important step in completing the degree requirements of a new program “as quickly as possible.” The ability to transfer your work to a new program, however, can depend on several things:

  • Accreditation: Which type of accreditation does the school or program where you completed your previous courses have? This is one of the first criteria admissions counselors will consider. Accreditation ensures a basic level of academic quality, providing the school to which you are applying with some reassurance about your learning experience.
  • Number of credits: It’s possible that not all of your credits will be accepted, especially if you have a large number. Some schools require that you complete a minimum number of credits within their programs to be eligible to receive a degree from that school. Thomas Edison State College has one of the most open policies, accepting up to 120 credits from a regionally accredited four-year institution.
  • Specific courses: The content of the courses you took will have an impact on which, and how many, credits will transfer to a new program. If, for example, you were in a business program several years ago and plan to continue your studies in a similar field, you may find that more of your courses are counted toward the new degree plan than if your previous courses were in a non-business discipline.
  • Your grades: Many institutions won’t offer transfer credit for courses in which you earned less than a “C.”
  • Date completed: Not all schools or programs will be concerned with how long ago you took your courses, but some will. Many programs require students to complete their coursework within a specified time frame (e.g., 7 years) and may apply this to transfer credit as well.

Keep in mind that none of these are hard and fast rules. The review of previously earned credit is usually done on a case-by-case basis. Each program you are interested in will want to take a close look at the courses you’ve taken to see how they match up with the requirements of a new degree plan.

Explore the Options

Finding an online program can be a quick process, but finding one that will accept your unique combination of earned credits may take a little more time. Since there is no centralized process for transfer credit evaluation, and it’s not realistic to apply to dozens of programs to see which one will accept the most transfer credit, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Find a new program at your previous college. This is your best bet for having those credits accepted toward a new program. Does the institution now offer online programs or are there online programs available from other schools in that university’s system?
  • Ask about transfer agreements. Does your previous school have any articulation agreements with other schools or online programs? If so, they can help to minimize the review and approval process.
  • Use school-provided information. Several institutions provide web-based tools to help you make an initial evaluation of your previous coursework. Arizona State University’s (ASU) Transfer Credit Guide “allows you to search for ASU course equivalencies” online to begin the process.
  • Look for employer partnerships. If your company or organization is working with a specific school or program, you may find not only programs tailored to your career needs, but also assistance in the application and transfer process, and possibly tuition assistance or discounts.
  • Consider experience credit. Do you have practical experience in the field you want to study? An evaluation of your work experience and certifications may lead to prior learning credit that can be applied toward degree requirements. Kaplan University is just one school outlining the possibilities. The assessment process can take time and include fees, but may result in fewer classes you have to take or re-take to earn your degree.
  • Talk to advisors at an Educational Opportunity Center. Check your eligibility for services through this federally funded program, and find office locations in your region that provide “counseling and information on college admissions” before you apply.

You may be able to work with an institution to put together a package that includes a combination of transfer and prior learning credit, but be prepared to take additional courses, even if your total number of credits is more than what would be required.

Target a few accredited schools that offer online programs in your chosen field, and begin making contact. While it may take some time to find the best fit, it will be worth it if you can find a program that will accept some of the work you’ve already completed.

Image credit: Our Lady of Disgrace, Flickr, CC:BY-NC

January 25th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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