What to consider if you're thinking about transferring colleges

As the last year has taught us all—for better or worse—life is constantly changing. And consequently, so too are our goals. Whether you’re looking to upgrade your skills to become more competitive in your industry or preparing for a career change, you may reach a point in the near future where you consider going back to college. Navigating the process of transferring your previous credits to a new degree program that better aligns with your ambitions can be an intimidating task. But if you’re lucky, you may have access to advice from experts like Kathy Urban to help guide you along the way.

As Director of Undergraduate Programs at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) at the University of Pennsylvania, Urban has worked with a plethora of nontraditional students who started college immediately out of high school but couldn’t connect what they were learning in the classroom to its real-world applications. Other students have bounced around between colleges, changed their minds about what they wanted to study, or simply found that their program or school wasn’t a good fit.  She explains, “So they took a break, went out into the work world, gained some maturity and work experience—which brings a lot more clarity to what our future goals are—and we find them returning to school.”

Suffice it to say that the reasons that people decide to transfer colleges are numerous and sometimes highly personal. “What's interesting about the kinds of transfer credit that students come in with is that there's usually not just one way to transfer the credit in. The challenge is figuring out the best way do it because oftentimes people will have a nice distribution of credit,” explains Urban. And that’s why she advises potential transfer students to reach out to their colleges of interest early on to see if they offer preliminary transfer credit evaluations or virtual information sessions before making any sort of commitment.

The transfer credit process can be likened to solving a complex puzzle—with the goal of maximizing the number of transfer credits that can be applied to the applicant’s desired concentration. And this is the critical point. “I always tell students, when you’re shopping around, the question you want to know is how many courses will I need to complete my degree. The number that transfers in is largely irrelevant,” Urban notes.

Strategic tips for potential transfer students

If you’re thinking about becoming a transfer student, you likely have some more questions about the process as well as the factors you should consider before you move forward. During her time at Penn and the Penn LPS Online program, Urban has worked with transfer applicants from a wide variety of professional and educational backgrounds. As such, she has accumulated a breadth of helpful insights along the way.

Do your inner homework

“I would always like any student that's looking to engage in higher education to have done what I call ‘the inner work,’ where if you're targeting a particular career—or a particular major—that you’re aware of what the requirements are,” says Urban. This includes considering additional factors such licensure or certification obligations—and whether you will need to plan on attending a professional or graduate school after you earn your bachelor’s degree.

This stage is about nailing down what you want to study and why. The process will be different for everyone, depending on where you are at in terms of clearly defining your vocational goals.  Urban adds, “I do think there is an academic freedom for adult students who are returning, who have an established career, and are probably hoping to catch up their degree attainment with their professional achievement.”

Be strategic when choosing your major

Although there are some exceptions, the process of choosing a major as an adult student varies considerably from that of a first-time college student because “any work experience that you have up to this point is certainly going to be more important in determining what your next career move is going to be,” Urban explains. 

It’s also important to realize that even when it comes to general education courses, what will transfer to one college will not necessarily be accepted at another. This means that when comparing programs, you need to be aware of both the curriculum and residency requirements of each institution before you make a final decision. Along the same lines, if you want to earn your degree online you should verify that the information you are getting applies specifically to the online program—because that is not always the case.

Prepare for what integrating college into your life will mean

Urban also stresses the importance of being realistic about assessing all the demands in your life—including work, family, and leisure time—before you fully commit to becoming a transfer student. “If you have other people in your life, they also need to understand that your time to hang out with them, or make dinner, or go to the ballgame is going to be limited,” she adds. “And you want to make sure they’re prepared for what the transition is going to be. Because it’s going to be important that they support your return to school. And if they don’t, then you need to figure out how to work with that.”

Consider community college as an intermediary

In her work with nontraditional students, Urban often encounters transfer applicants who didn’t necessarily perform as well as they would have liked academically during their first experience at college. For many of these students, the BAAS Gateway Program offers an opportunity to dive right into an Ivy League education and demonstrate their academic abilities. But the best path forward varies for each student depending on multiple factors—academic, financial, and personal. “So, I talk to them, look at the courses that they have taken previously, and then make a recommendation that they create what I called a redemption transcript,” she explains.

Under some circumstances, Urban may encourage students to consider attending a community college before moving on to Penn because “you can apply a month ahead of time and be ready to roll. And we transfer in credit from two-year and four-year accredited institutions.”

Community colleges can also serve as an easier transition back into higher education because they tend to offer the flexibility of evening or online classes; are generally more financially feasible; and may provide students the opportunity to showcase their current academic abilities in a lower-risk environment.

Embrace your confidence—and calm

“I see so much angst when adult students are looking to return to school. And it’s always from the people who are so professionally accomplished, and the last thing that they should be worried about is being able to do well in these classes,” says Urban. To that end, adult students can really benefit from embracing the knowledge, skills, and experience they have gained in their professional lives—and recognizing how these abilities can and will carry over into their studies.

Urban is often surprised—and saddened—by the amount of anxiety that so many people have continued to carry because of the perceived social stigma of not graduating from college. This frequently translates into a genuine fear that someone in their work or social sphere will find out that they haven’t earned their degree and think less of them. So, it’s important for these types of transfer students to try and put things in perspective, let themselves off the hook mentally, and move forward with their education with confidence.

What are the benefits of transferring to Penn LPS Online?

The Penn LPS Online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) program is ideally suited for working adults and other nontraditional transfer students who want the option to choose from a variety of online courses and degree concentrations—or customize their studies to fit their unique interests and goals. They could be 50% closer to graduation than they realize. Up to 50% of the credit requirements for the BAAS degree may be met with credits completed at an eligible regionally accredited institution, and students can undergo a preliminary transfer credit evaluation to assess previous college-level work before they submit their applications.

Once students receive their preliminary evaluation, they should have a good understanding of which of their credits will likely be accepted—and how many additional courses they will need to take to complete the BAAS degree. Students can also refer more specialized questions to their recruiter, who may loop Urban in “to explain what can transfer in, what won't, and what the best strategy might be when they look at deciding on a concentration.”

For example, says Urban, “I find that with our flexible transfer credit policy, for students who are completing general education and working within an associate degree curriculum at a community college, that we're likely going to be able to find 15 courses in that curricular structure that will successfully transfer into the BAAS degree.” Once accepted, online students will work with the same dedicated enrollment, student services, and advising staff as do traditional students. “You also get the benefit of attending an Ivy League institution with an accomplished faculty. Penn really has a history of educational innovation,” adds Urban.

Urban notes that many students are drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of the courses offered at Penn LPS Online, “because they are typically part of signature programs that run at Penn in the School of Arts and Sciences.” The individualized studies concentration can also be a great option for transfer students who have a specific career outcome in mind—and are eager to complete their degree as efficiently as possible. “Not a lot of institutions offer that flexibility to mix it up and design-your-own experience,” she notes.

Urban reiterates that one of the biggest hurdles she sees nontraditional students grapple with is a lack of confidence in their academic abilities. This may stem from shame over failing to complete their degree or regret at their inability to thrive in their original college environment. “So, part of the orientation and transition process into Penn LPS is really about helping to boost their confidence,” she explains. “And I think that they find that ‘Wow I can actually do this’ moment.” Urban has heard from numerous students—particularly those who grew up in the Philadelphia area—who say that are amazed to have the chance to finally complete their degrees at their dream school after so many years.

For prospective transfer students who are still on the fence, Urban says that it’s important to realize that it is never too late to return to college—especially if you are bringing experience, motivation, and passion to the table. Whether you’re looking to advance your career, pivot professionally, or finish what you started, “I encourage people to take the leap. Time is going to march on whether you have a degree or not. So, how do you want to spend your time? If you have the intellectual curiosity and you’ve always wanted to complete your bachelor’s degree, give it a try.”

For information on the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree, visit the Penn LPS Online feature “What is a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree?

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