The Hidden Cost of Transferring to a Different College

A Change May be a Good Choice, but Students Need to Watch for the Hidden Costs

Consider the true cost of transferring before making a decision. Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Before you decide to transfer to a new college, be sure to consider all of the costs. Even if the school to which you are applying has lower tuition or better financial aid than your current college, you may find that you actually lose money by deciding to transfer.

The reality is that hundreds of thousands of college students transfer each year.. In fact, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center conducted a large-scale study that found that 37.2 percent of all college students transfer at least once.

There are many good reasons to transfer, and cost is certainly one of them. Students often find that they and their families are overburdened by the expense of college. As a result, it may be tempting to transfer from an expensive college to a more affordable public university or a private institution with lower tuition or better financial aid. Some students even transfer from a four-year school to a community college for a semester or two of cost savings.

However, before you decide to transfer for financial reasons, make sure you understand the possible hidden costs of changing schools.

The Credits You've Earned May Not Transfer

Some four-year colleges are very particular about what classes they will accept from other schools, even if you attended an accredited four-year college. College curricula are not standardized, so an Introduction to Psychology class at one college may not place you out of Introduction to Psychology at your new college. Transfer credits can be particularly tricky with more specialized classes.

Advice: Don't assume credits will transfer. Have a detailed conversation with the school you plan to transfer to about the credit you will receive for your completed course work. Find out of your new college has an articulation agreement with your current school that guarantees credits will transfer.

The Courses You've Taken May Earn Elective Credit Only

Most colleges will award you credit for the courses you've taken. However, for some courses, you may find that you receive elective credit only. In other words, you'll earn credit hours towards graduation, but the courses you took at your first school may not fulfill specific graduation requirements at your new school. This can lead to a situation in which you have enough credits to graduate, but you have not fulfilled your new school's general education or major requirements.

Advice: As with the first scenario above, be sure to have a detailed conversation with the school you plan to transfer to about the specific credits you will receive for your completed course work. You may also want to speak to an academic advisor or program chair at the new school so that you fully understand the major requirements for your major.

The Five or Six Year Bachelor's Degree

Because of the above issues, the majority of transfer students do not complete a bachelor's degree in four years. In fact, one goverment study showed that students who attended one institution graduated in an average of 51 months; those who attended two institutions took an average of 59 months to graduate; students who attended three institutions took an average of 67 months to earn a bachelor's degree. 

Advice: Don't assume transferring won't cause disruptions in your academic path. For most students it does, and your decision to transfer should take into account the very real possibility that you will be in college longer than if you don't transfer.

Lost Job Income Combined with More College Payments

The three points above lead to a major financial problem: students who transfer once will pay tuition and other college costs for an average of eight months longer than students who don't transfer. That's an average of eight months of spending money, not making money. It's more tuition, more room and board fees, more student loans, and more time spent going into debt rather than paying off debts. Even if your first job earns only $25,000, if you graduate in four years rather than five, that's $25,000 you're making, not spending.

Advice: Don't transfer simply because the local public university may cost thousands less per year. In the end, you may not actually pocket those savings.

Financial Aid Problems

It's not uncommon for transfer students to find that they are low on the priority list when colleges allocate financial aid. The best merit scholarships tend to go to incoming first-year students. Also, at many schools transfer applications are accepted much later than the applications for new first-year students. Financial aid, however, tends to get awarded until funds dry up. Entering the admissions cycle later than other students can make it more difficult to get good grant aid.

Advice: Apply for transfer admissions as early as you can, and don't accept an offer of admission until you know exactly what the financial aid package will look like.

The Social Cost of Transferring

Many transfer students feel isolated when they arrive at their new college. Unlike the other students at the college, the transfer student does not have a strong group of friends and has not connected with the college's faculty, clubs, student organizations and social scene. While these social costs are not financial, they can become financial if this isolation leads to depression, poor academic performance, or difficulty lining up internships and reference letters.

Advice: Most four-year colleges have academic and social support services for transfer students. Take advantage of these services. They will help you get acclimated to your new school, and they will help you meet peers.

Transferring from a Community College to Four-Year College

The most common type of college transfer is from a two-year community college to a four-year baccalaureate program. This academic path has clear financial benefits in most cases, but the transfer issues can be similar to those of transferring between four-year schools. Be sure to consider some of the issues of attending community college before making that decision.

A Final Word on Transferring

The ways in which colleges handle transfer credits and support transfer students vary greatly. In the end, you'll need to do a lot of planning and research to make your transfer as smooth as possible. This article isn't meant to discourage transferring—often a change makes sense socially, professionally, and financially—but you'll want to be aware of potential financial challenges before you begin the transfer process.