Transfer Credits & Course Codes: How to Ensure Successful University Transfer

Transfer Credits & Course Codes: How to Ensure Successful University Transfer
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

There could be different ways to attain a bachelor’s degree. One of them is by enrolling in a community college. With their low-cost tuition and fees, community colleges allow you to save some money complete general education requirements or an associate degree. You can then go for your bachelor’s degree through credit transfer programs.

Credit transfers can be a bit complicated. Different schools can have different policies. But fortunately, general rules also apply.

Understanding these rules entails understanding what transfer credits are (how do transfer credits work?) and the structure of a bachelor’s degree program requirements. Moreover, the key to understanding these transfer credit rules is a good notion of what course codes are. Basically, they show the level of difficulty of courses and the required order of taking them. This information will help guide you on how to choose the classes in the best community colleges that are likely to earn you transfer credits at a university level.

Why the Community College Route Is Popular

Undergraduate enrollment in two-year postsecondary institutions has become more popular since the 1970s. In fact, enrollment in two-year public institutions has grown 146% from 1970 to 2019 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). That is from 2.19 million to 5.39 million. The community college route is very popular for many reasons. Maybe, the most popular ones are affordability and accessibility.


In 2021, the average annual tuition and fees for attending a community college in your district are only $3,770 (American Association of Community Colleges, 2021). On the other hand, $10,560 is the average in-state tuition and fees in a four-year public college. That is 180.11% more expensive than the former. The community college route to a bachelor’s degree will potentially allow you to pay less for two years as you take general requirements classes and prerequisites before pursuing your bachelor’s degree at a university, which will cost you a whole lot more.


Community colleges are also very accessible. Currently, out of a total of 1,044 community colleges in the United States, almost 90%, at 936, are public community colleges. Out of the 51 states, only four do not have public two-year post-secondary institutions (NCES, 2020). These states are Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Nevada. They do, however, have private for-profit and non-profit two-year institutions available. For the rest of the states, there is at least one community college available with a median of 14 and an average of 16.7. The states with the most number of community colleges are

  • California (102)
  • North Carolina (58)
  • Texas (56)
  • Illinois (48)
  • New York (36)

Source: American Association of Community Colleges, 2021

Given the affordable average cost of community colleges and their accessibility, it is no wonder that 41% of undergraduate students in the United States are enrolled in community colleges (AACC, 2021).

community college average annual tuition and fees

A Stepping Stone: Further Education and Financial Health

Most undergraduates enroll to earn their associate degrees. This, for some, is preparation for bigger and better things. In 2019, associate degrees made up 57.85% of the total degrees conferred by community colleges in the U.S. (American Association of Community Colleges, 2021). That is 878,900 out of the total of 1.51 million. The total certificates awarded are 40.79% of the total at 619,711. Community colleges only awarded 20,700 baccalaureate degrees during the year, making up only 1.36% of the total degrees conferred.

All things considered, associate degrees are stepping stones to full-fledged bachelor’s degrees. This is considering both the degree of difficulty of earning these two types of degrees (intellectual advancement) and the potential earning these can afford you.

This is because a bachelor’s degree is usually required to enroll in graduate degree programs. Of course, there are exceptions like dual degree programs. Generally, however, baccalaureate coursework is requisite before moving on to the more advanced and specialized topics in one’s field.

Financially, and career-wise, bachelor degree holders earn more than associate degree holders. The median salary of bachelor degree holders is $64,896 while the figure is $46,124 for associate degree holders.

median annual salaries, bachelor's degree vs. associate's degree

What are transfer credits and what are they for?

What is transfer credit in university? Firstly, transfer credits come in various terms. These include credit transfer and advanced standing. These terms are being used by post-secondary educational institutions to refer to a process of granting credit for educational experiences or courses taken from another institution. This is done when one student moves from one institution to another, especially for foreign students. Also, this is the process where students who finished courses (or earned an associate degree) from a community college apply to have these recognized at their target institution.

To apply for a transfer, students usually need to submit their transcripts. This is basically a report card and is usually referred to as a student’s permanent record. The record contains information like:

  • Course codes
  • Title of the courses
  • Course duration
  • Grades received
  • Honors awarded
  • Degrees conferred
  • School accreditation

Students can easily ask for their transcripts from their home institution. When they submit it to their target institution, the receiving school or department will have to decide which courses they will give credit to. They will select which courses completed by the applicant they will recognize as being on par with their own standards. In other words, they will give credits to, more or less, course equivalents.

Often, courses taken from community colleges are core curriculum requirements. Thus, if all are given credit, they can proceed with working on their majors. There are also times when courses taken from the home institution can count as major credits. Generally, however, courses taken from community colleges are basic-level classes that just introduce students to a field. Also, they are usually prerequisites for taking more advanced classes that would count as major credits.

This is why it is important to have an idea of which courses you need to take in a community college that would not only be credited by your target university but also count as prerequisites to more advanced classes for major credits. This, however, is more nuanced than it sounds.

The Dreaded Credit Loss Issue

As Giani (2019) pointed out, despite the “centrality and growing prevalence of transfer in the American postsecondary system, students, college professionals, and policymakers decry the lack of credit transferability between colleges.” This lack of transferability leads to students experiencing what is called ‘credit loss’ where “the receiving institution does not accept credits previously earned by the student.” In his paper, “The correlates of credit loss: How demographics, pre‑transfer academics, and institutions relate to the loss of credits for vertical transfer students,” published in Research in Higher Education, Giani pointed out three principal issues.

  • Prevalence of non-traditional pathways and student “swirl.”
  • Inability to transfer credits from one type of institution to another.
  • Inability to apply transfer credits to their chosen degree plan.

Prevalence of non-traditional pathways and student “swirl”

The “traditional student,” stated Giani (2019), could be a misnomer. This is because a high school graduate who “enrolls directly in a postsecondary institution, attends only that institution, and earns a credential within the recommended timeframe is the exception rather than the rule.”

Post-secondary students today are not only more likely to transfer than their peers in previous cohorts. They are also more likely to “complete multiple transfers, reverse transfers (4-year to 2-year), and lateral transfers (e.g., 2-year to 2-year)” (Adelman, 2006 in Giani, 2019).  Transfer credits systems were designed for more traditional transfers. As transfer pathways have become more complex, overseeing bodies like the state and the institution themselves have a hard time keeping up.

Inability to transfer credits from one type of institution to another

Giani cited a 2017 study by the United States Accountability Office (U.S. GAO) that uses the Beginning Post-secondary Students (BPS) longitudinal survey. In it, the office found that students transferring between for-profit and non-profit institutions, whether two-year or four-year colleges, lost more than 90% of their credits on average. Transfers between two two-year public colleges have an average credit loss of 69%. The lowest rate of average credit loss, at 22%, is from the transfers from public two-year to four-year institutions—the traditional transfer route.

Inability to apply transfer credits to their chosen degree plan

While students may be successful in transferring their credits, they do not always get to use them for their chosen degree plan. This is a common problem for many. Giani (2019) suggested that the inability to apply credits or “program credit loss” might just be a bigger issue. In general, transfer students accumulate more credits than students. Citing the study of Belfield and colleagues (2017), Giani (2019) “found that bachelor’s completers who started at a 2-year college attempted 153.8 credits on average compared to 129.1 credits for native students, a difference of approximately one year (24.7 credits) of courses.” These data points, even though limited when it comes to qualitative reasons, lend evidence to the potentially greater problem of program credit loss.

average credit loss by transfer type

How to Ensure Transfer Credit

The problem of credit loss is experienced by the majority of transfer students. Most “lose at least some credits at the time of transfer, and only about half of transfer students are able to bring in all or nearly all of their credits to the receiving institution (Giani, 2019).” There are even studies, Giani (2019) found, that show students having lost 90% or more of their credits. The causes for these are very complex and span across different levels: states, institutions, and students themselves. These include state policies and institutional relationships that could be improved.

In U.S. GAO’s (2017) report, Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits, the agency recommended that the Department of Education should “1) require schools to disclose on their websites (a) the list of other schools with which they have articulation agreements and (b) when no such agreements are in place; and (2) provide general transfer information to students and families.” However, the Department of Education “disagreed with the first and agreed with the second recommendation.” Thus, even though some progress has been achieved, an overarching policy is not attained as of yet.

The specifics of this progress, however, are better not discussed in this article as they are outside of our scope. Instead, we are going to focus on the factors that we can control. That is on the student’s side of the game.

So, how do you ensure transfer credit? The short answer is you cannot fully. There is virtually no way of getting every course you take from one institution to get credited in another. This is especially for major courses. However, there are some rules of thumb that you can follow to help you save as many credits as possible. The best general advice is for you to have a long-term plan and cover all your bases.

1. Have a long-term vision and plan

Firstly, to ensure that most, if not all, of your credits are transferrable, you should have a set idea of what degree you will be gunning for and which school you plan to transfer to, and their transfer policies. In this way, you can create a personalized pathway that will enable you to save on valuable time and resources and graduate on the intended time.

2. Do your research and get help

There are several things that you need to consider in your target school, given the three principal credit loss issues discussed in the previous section. They are:

  • What kind of transfer credit is accepted?
  • What is the minimum grade to qualify for credits?
  • Is there a limit to the transfer credits accepted?
  • Will the credits that get accepted count towards my target degree program?

This is because, as implied, institutions evaluate transfer credits according to their own standards. And these standards usually differ from school to school. This information, however, is relatively easy to find. Firstly, you can check your target school’s website. There is a great chance that information about transfer policies and transfer credits are there. Secondly, you can contact the registrar as they oversee the transcription of credits. You, of course, can help this process along by requesting a copy of your transcript from your home institution. In this way, both you and the registrar can see which courses will count towards earning a degree from your target school.

3. Take general education classes

Most, if not all, colleges and universities want students to take courses for their majors from them. So, if you are looking to earn an associate’s degree for a transfer or just taking courses to jump-start your credit requirements, take general education courses. This is because, typically, general education courses are easily transferrable and credited to a target school’s general education requirements. Taking practical or vocational courses have the least chance of getting credit, especially if you want to enroll in an academic track. They can be useful for an associate’s degree or to get a job right after graduation. However, they do not translate well for pursuing an academic major.

If you are aiming for an academic track, take many general education courses that would fit the core curriculum requirements of your target college or university. It is the safest way to go towards getting into a major program at your prospective school. And the one important aspect to knowing which previous credits are transferrable and applicable (again, both are different) is the use of course codes.

4. Get familiar with course codes

What are course codes?   Course codes are tools that colleges and universities use to show the organization of their courses. Course codes can look like ENG 101, ENG 201, and BIO 101.  These codes signify not just the subject area of the course but also the degree of difficulty that determines whether one needs to take prerequisite courses or not. These are made quite easy to understand to aid departments and students alike to plan educational pathways. You can even use this tool yourself when independently evaluating which classes you can take in your home institution may get counted by your prospective school.

There are schools, however, that make it easier for students to assess for themselves without the help of registrars. One of these schools is the University of Arizona. The university provides prospective transfer students with an online transfer tool where they can check for equivalency. Note, however, that transfer tools, typically just cover in-state institutions. It is because the transferability of credits is, to a good degree, influenced by state legislation. Policies can include “common course numbering, common core courses, and transfer-oriented associate’s degrees (Giani, 2019).” And course numbering is one aspect of course codes.

In practice, however, Giani (2019) noted that “these frameworks may be voluntary or may give the state little recourse to enforce compliance even when they are mandatory.” So, it is best to check with your target institution through its transfer tool, sample degree plans, and the school’s registrar.

How College Course Codes Work

How do transfer credits work? College course codes provide students with clues on what courses get transfer credits. The course codes usually have two elements:  the prefix and the course numbering. They signify the subject area, the level of difficulty, and are attached to the proper course name and its description. These can vary from institution to institution. They are used to construct a school’s entire course catalog. No two courses have the same course code. They are usually determined by the State Department of Education level to ensure transferability.

Now, let us discuss how to use course codes to help determine transfer credits.

Course Prefix

Examples of course prefixes are ENG, BIO, MAT, and CS. They are usually abbreviations or acronyms of the subject areas. In those examples, you can easily infer that ENG stands for English, BIO stands for biology, and MAT stands for mathematics. CS, in many schools, usually stands for computer science. The course prefix is very useful in knowing if two courses are given by the same department. They also let you know what course can be credited for your minor, major, or general requirements. So, if you need three MAT classes for your major, you need to take courses with an MAT course prefix.

Course Numbers

Course numbers are the second part of course codes. Most of the time, they are three digits long. Examples are 101, 201, 301, and 401. These, however, vary from one institution to another. The basic thing to understand, however, is that they signify course level and difficulty. Normally, they are:

Course NumberingCourse LevelDifficultyContentPrerequisites
100-levelFreshmen/SophomoreIntermediate General EducationNo
200-levelFreshmen/SophomoreIntermediate General EducationYes
300-levelJunior/SeniorAdvancedMajor SpecificYes
400-levelJunior/SeniorAdvancedMajor SpecificYes
000-levelNot College-LevelDevelopmental/RemedialPreparatory SubjectsNo

Some institutions use four digits like 1000, 2000, and so on. However, the first digit is the most useful to look at. This is because, in general, most institutions represent the increasing level of specialization (and difficulty) of their courses using ascending numbers starting from the first digit. The higher the number is, the more prerequisite classes are needed to take it.

Moreover, there are also 500-level and 600-level classes that are for graduate students. Some seminars and other special types of credit-earning classes usually have different numerical codes as well.

Course Names and Course Descriptions

These are probably the most important parts of the course catalogs. While course prefixes and course numbers indicate which department supervises the course and the course level respectively, course names and course descriptions show you more specific information. So, for instance, BIO 101 can stand for General Biology 1, its course name. A course description usually gives a cursory look at the topics covered, the methods of delivery, and the importance of the course. An example would be:

Course CodeCourse NameCourse Description
CPSC 110aIntroduction to Cognitive ScienceAn introduction to the interdisciplinary study of how the mind works. Discussion of tools, theories, and assumptions from psychology, computer science, neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy.
CPSC 201a or bIntroduction to Computer ScienceIntroduction to the concepts, techniques, and applications of computer science. Topics include computer systems (the design of computers and their languages); theoretical foundations of computing (computability, complexity, algorithm design); and artificial intelligence (the organization of knowledge and its representation for efficient search). Examples stress the importance of different problem-solving methods. After CPSC 112 or equivalent.
MCDB 320a / NSCI 320aNeurobiologyThe excitability of the nerve cell membrane as a starting point for the study of molecular, cellular, and systems-level mechanisms underlying the generation and control of behavior. At least 1 semester of college chemistry is strongly recommended.
Source: Yale, 2021

From the table, you can see that some course names can have different course codes. Usually, as discussed, course prefixes signify which department supervises the course. However, it can also be based on the major program a student is enrolled in. This ultimately depends on the institution. This is why course names and descriptions are very important. The course prefix and numbering can only tell so much.

For instance, MCDB 320a and NSCI 320a are both neurobiology courses. The former, however, is for molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (MCDB) majors supervised by the MCDB department. On the other hand, NSCI 320a is also a neurobiology course for an interdisciplinary neuroscience major program where the MCDB department is a co-sponsor of the program together with the Department of Psychology (PSYC). Also, the faculties supervising could overlap or even be one and the same.

The same course code can also be used by the same institutions but their course names can be different. For instance, the course code would be ENG 101 for two separate institutions. For institution A, ENG 101 is Writing 1. On the other hand, the course name is English Composition 1. While both have different names, the course description can be the same. Thus, taking ENG 101 from institution A is highly likely to get credited by institution B and vice versa. Of course, the likelihood of getting transfer credits is much higher if the course names and descriptions match.

Follow Through on Your Transfer Credit Request

Once you have laid out your goals, have done your research, and have a plan in place, it is time to follow through. However, keep in mind that there could be hiccups along the way. As the statistical data have shown, many students still lose a lot of potential transfer credits due to many factors. Thus, one should temper their expectations. But there are ways to make you more successful. They involve social skills.

The best way to ensure that most, if not all, of your community college courses will get credited by your target school for transfer is to ask for guidance along the way. Follow-through not just on your original plan but make a few calls and inquiries as you go from semester to semester. You can build good relationships with your home institution’s registrar, guidance counselor, and even your target school’s faculty and admissions office. In this way, you will not only have a good network source of information but also good advisors and potential mentors.

Community colleges offer a way to affordable college degrees. For further reading, you can also check free college education statistics and learn how this concept is helping shape higher education across the globe.



  1. Adelman, c. (2006). The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. U.S. Department of Education.
  2. American Association of Community Colleges. (2017, September 17). Fast facts. AACC. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from AACC.
  3. Belfield, C., Fink, J., & Jenkins, P. D. (2017). Is it really cheaper to start at a community college? The consequences of inefficient transfer for community college students seeking bachelor’s degrees. Community College Research Center.
  4. Giani, M. S. (2019). The correlates of credit loss: How demographics, pre-transfer academics, and institutions relate to the loss of credits for vertical transfer students. Research in Higher Education, 60(8), 1113-1141. Springer.
  5. National Center for Education Statistics. (2021, January 31). Digest of education statistics 2020. Statista.
  6. United States Government Accountability Office. (2017, August 14). Higher education: Students need more information to help reduce challenges in transferring college credits. U.S. GAO.

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