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2 Types of Transfer Students: 2-Year vs. 4-Year Schools

Planning to transfer from a community college or a four-year school? No matter what type of student you are, here's what you can do to simplify the process.

While most students transfer from one college to another for similar reasons—money, college fit, major, etc.—there are two distinct kinds of transfer students: those coming from two-year/community colleges and those transferring from another four-year college. We can assume you know which type of transfer student you are having decided to switch schools—but now you need to know how to properly treat this new leg of your college journey like the transfer student you are. Let’s explore the differences and similarities between these two types of transfers, how to adjust your approach for your second college search, and what you can expect at your new school.

Profile of a community college transfer

Community college transfer students are often forward-thinking individuals. Unless a student is attending a community college with the knowledge that their profession only requires an associate degree or trade certificate, most students attend a community college with the intention of transferring to a four-year school. Community colleges give students the opportunity to explore their options and figure out what they want to do before diving into a more expensive bachelor’s degree program.

Common situations for community college transfer students

  • Attending community college first to save money
  • Figuring out what career path to take
  • Finishing a general education degree program
  • Feeling a lack of community at your community college 

Related: 5 Things I Learned My Last Year at Community College

Profile of a four-year school transfer

Students don’t normally transfer from one four-year college to another just for fun—and they don’t typically attend a school with the intention of ever transferring at all. As a four-year transfer student, you must first reconcile that you didn’t choose the best-fit school for your needs—and that’s okay! But if you don’t make the conscious effort to acknowledge why the school isn’t right for you, you won’t be able to see the important factors you need to consider when choosing your next college to transfer to. 

Common situations for four-year transfer students

  • Needing to leave your school for financial reasons
  • Feeling unfulfilled in the program and courses you’re taking
  • Seeking a major/career path change
  • Feeling like you don’t fit in with the campus community 

The second-round college search

The intimidating school search is something all college students have to go through in their journey—but most students don’t have to do it twice. If you’re transferring, you need to modify your approach to really lock down on your college needs by taking advantage of all your resources at your current school and potential new schools. There’s also the extra work you face that new students don’t: transferring credits. Here are some of the key factors to focus on for all transfer students. 

Key factors in the transfer college search

There are some things about transferring that remain the same no matter where you’re coming from or what experience you have. Here are the college search elements all transfer students should put extra focus on and do a little soul-searching to figure out the second time:

  • Cost: Whether you’re coming from a community college and expecting a big cost change or coming from another four-year school to cut your costs down, you need to do a little extra research to determine what you can afford for these last two to three years of your education. Look into how your student loans will transfer from one school to another or your options for consolidation if you need to take out more. Also be aware that you may lose any institutional scholarships if you switch schools.
  • Student community: Transferring to a new school in the middle of your college career is hard because you’re walking into a student community that has already had time to form bonds and friend groups. Make sure you find a school you really think you can fit into with ease so you don’t end up with the outcasted feeling transfers often experience.
  • Student activities: Many transfer students tend to find their former school lacking in extracurricular activities that elevate their experience and ignite their passions. This can play a bigger factor in wanting to transfer than you might have expected, so make sure your new school will exceed these expectations—you don’t want to find yourself wanting for better opportunities again.

But there’s one aspect of transferring that needs more attention than any of the others…

Program options and transfer credits

One of the biggest reasons for a student to transfer is to pursue a major or degree program that is more in line with their goals. Community college students typically have the benefit of transferring with an associate degree that can help guide them to the right college major, whereas four-year transfers must find a comparable program that’s better focused on their specific interests or choose a new field entirely. However, both types of students must face the dreaded process of transferring credits. Research transfer policies and articulation agreements for your new schools of interest to learn about how your credits will transfer and how many you can carry over. In exploring your new major possibilities, print out lists of the required courses and a list of classes you’ve already taken to compare and see whether or not your coursework and experience are on par with the expectations at your new school.

Related: What Are College Articulation Agreements All About?

What to expect at your new school

The beauty of the higher education system is that there are a lot of things about college that remain the same from school to school. So don’t get overwhelmed like you might have been when you first left for college—it’s still college all the same. However, you should prepare yourself for some major changes.

Biggest changes for two-year transfers

The obvious potential big change for two-year students is living on campus. While some community colleges have dorms, most students commute to campus. If you’re transferring to a four-year school farther away, you’re contending with on-campus living for the first time, so be prepared for the “college bubble”—the feeling students often get of being cut off from the rest of the world while on campus. If you’re this type of transfer student, also expect to see more student involvement and more of an active campus social life as well as higher college costs—tuition and college fees are much higher at four-year colleges and universities than community and technical schools.

[Author’s note: It’s often assumed that switching from a community college to a four-year school means your education will become more challenging. As a transfer student myself, I can assuredly say that isn’t true. Community college may provide a smaller range in course options, but many of my classes were as hard or harder than the ones I took for my bachelor’s degree.] 

Biggest changes for four-year transfers

There’s a good chance one of the reasons you’re transferring from one school to another is because your current school is either smaller or larger than you thought you wanted. If that’s the case, be prepared for a heavy community and social shift in attending your new school. Big schools tend to feel like vast, open worlds of possibility, and smaller schools feel like tight-knit, connected communities. Expect that it’ll take some time to adjust even if this change is what you wanted. If you’re this type of transfer student, also expect to shift your learning style if your new major program isn’t quite in line with your old one, and learn to balance finding new friends with keeping in touch with friends you made at your old school. 

Related: When to Transfer (and How to Make it as Seamless as Possible)

The transfer process can be stressful and disorienting—whether you’re transferring from a two-year or four-year school. It’s a diversion in your life path. It’s facing up to some hard truths. And it’s making a bold choice to seek out the best possible education for your needs. Embrace the process, adjust your approach to finding your new school, and go out of your way to make your new campus community your home. You may not have as much time left in college as a first-year student does, but you can sure make the most of it while you’re there!

Start searching for your new best-fit school with our College Search tool, or if you’ve already found it, check out more advice on transferring in our Transfer Students section.

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