If the undergrads are doing it…
Most people are familiar with the idea of transferring credits toward an undergraduate degree; by taking general education courses at a community college before entering a bachelor’s degree program or attending summer classes at a geographically or financially appealing school during your four (or five, or six…) years as an undergrad, you reap several important benefits: you can save money, earn credits without having the grade itself transfer, and free up space in your schedule for more interesting courses.
For example, an English major admitted to Out-of-State University (OOSU) for the fall of 2012 might choose to take a math course at Home-State Community College during the summer of 2012, after checking to make sure that the course will fulfill the OOSU math requirement. The student avoids paying OOSU’s high tuition for that class, and if he or she is math-challenged, a low-but-passing grade won’t hurt his or her GPA, since grades usually don’t transfer with credits. It’s a strategic move that can have a high payoff in terms of time, money, and stress.
…why shouldn’t you?
However, people rarely consider this option for graduate school, and that’s a shame, because many programs allow it.
I was lucky enough to inadvertently set myself up for this very scenario; after completing my law degree, I took a few advanced intellectual property law classes at a less expensive university to keep my skills sharp. These courses were never used toward a degree. Several years later, when I left private practice and returned to graduate school, I realized that those courses could transfer as electives to my current program. Transferring six credits, combined with taking a slightly heavier course load, has allowed me to graduate a full semester early, saving approximately $18,000 in tuition and living expenses, not to mention the financial benefits of entering the workforce months ahead of schedule.
How can you do something similar?
The first (and most important!) step is to consult with your graduate program. Some programs don’t allow transfer credits at all, and others have strict rules about the grade you must earn for a credit to transfer, when the courses can be taken, and what kinds of courses are eligible. Often, you can get this information on the program’s website; if not, the staff in Admissions or an academic advisor should be able to help you. If you’re slated to enter a program at Elite University in the fall of 2012, and that program will accept transfer credits, you may be able to take a couple of courses at a less-rigorous, less-selective local university prior to that, saving you tuition money and allowing you to speed up your progress toward a degree—and that’s definitely a smart move for many students.