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10 Tips to a Successful Transfer from a Community College

10 Tips to a Successful Transfer from a Community College

Most community college students who would like to obtain a bachelor’s degree never do. Only 14% of students who start at a community college end up transferring and earning a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Among the students who do transfer, 36% of low-income students obtain a bachelor’s degree while 44% of middle and high-income students do. A major reason why so many students aren’t successful is that the path to obtaining a bachelor’s degree is littered with potholes.

My friend, who is a physician, decided that the best way to get her daughter through community college as quickly as possible and on to a bachelor’s degree was to help her pick her classes. “I was stunned at how complicated the process is,” she complained to me. “Even with an advanced degree, it’s hard to figure out.”

How to Successfully Transfer

If you are a community college student, here are 10 things that you can do to boost your chances of ultimately making a smooth transition to a four-year college.

1. Study for Placement Tests

Community colleges routinely require entering students to take placement tests in math and English. Studies show, however, that these tests are blunt instruments that unfairly consign too many students to remedial courses that do not offer credit.  According to Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, 30% of the time, test takers are underplaced in English and math courses.

To avoid getting stuck in remedial classes for no credit, students should study for the placement tests. Go to the testing center and ask about the best ways to study. A staffer should be able to recommend materials.

According to a study by the Center for Community Student Engagement, almost half of colleges offer placement test study aids, but only 28% of students used them. One helpful and free test-prep resource is the Khan Academy. 

2. Appeal the Placement Verdict

If you test into remedial courses, you should consider appealing. Students who show enough gumption to appeal are more likely to succeed in skipping remedial classes. A high school grade point average is more relevant than placement test results for predicting student success.

3. Don’t Front-Load General Education Credits

Although students assume they need to sample a wide variety of courses at the beginning of college, this will often lead to earning excess credits. Students fall into the trap of taking general education classes that won’t apply to their majors when they want to transfer.

Community colleges encourage this behavior by offering a cafeteria model of choices with an overwhelming number of disconnected courses and programs. “When they wander around in the general eds, they are going nowhere,” Jenkins said.  

4. Don’t Delay Selecting a Major

"Community college students who successfully transfer are more likely to pick a major early," said Natalie Jansorn, director of scholarship programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. This is especially important for majors in the sciences, engineering and nursing that have a lot of prerequisites.

Students should get a taste of a potential major, such as social and behavioral science, business, education or criminal justice, in their first semester. Not sure about a major? Seek help at the career center, where you can take a career test and ask about internships and work-study opportunities. Jansorn says you’ll be better off if you pick a major early, even if you decide to switch to another one.

5. Develop a Plan

It’s essential to start community college with a plan for how you are going to transfer. Go to your career transfer office and see what the academic path will be for a particular major. A growing number of community colleges, 250 by Jenkins’s estimate, offer guided academic pathways for students. Identifying a list of potential classes helps students make progress towards a goal.

6. Network with Advisors

It’s important to meet with transfer advisors at the community college and talk with professors in your intended academic field. You can learn from everyone you meet.

7. Take a Student Success Course

Community colleges routinely offer a student success course that shares critical information about studying and time management. Community colleges have reported that students who take these optional courses are more likely to stay in school and transfer to four-year universities.

In fact, a study from the Center for Community College Student Engagement concluded that students who complete a success course are more likely to earn better grades, have higher overall grade point averages and obtain degrees.

8. Check out Potential Universities

Early on, you need to know what kind of classes are required to transfer to four-year colleges and universities. It’s quite common for students to lose 10-15% of their credits during a transfer.

Talk to the transfer advisors at four-year institutions, as well as professors at your intended department. Unfortunately, transfer requirements can vary from department to department at a university, so you will also have to do your research on that level.

9. Check the Price

Be sure to understand what your costs will be at a four-year institution before transferring. Some universities offer net price calculators for transfer students. Many colleges and universities also provide scholarships and financial aid to transfer students. Schedule a talk with a financial aid administrator.

10. Hang in There

Although it can be tough to navigate the community college system and transfer successfully, the good news is that students who do persevere do just as well as students who start at four-year schools. You can get a great education at a community college, but to succeed, you need to be your own advocate.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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