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How long do college credits last?

This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Hinrich Eylers, PhD, PE, MBA

Reviewed by Hinrich Eylers, PhD, PE, MBA, Vice Provost for Academic Operations and Doctoral Studies

This article was updated on February 29 2024

 

For many college students, the thought of hard-earned academic credits expiring can be demoralizing. But if you’ve taken a few years off since graduating, or if you’re considering going back to school after 30 after being away for a long time, the question looms: Will your college credits be valid?

There is good news: College credit that you earned at an institution will not expire and be removed from your transcript, so a student will always have the credits. However, where and how your credit may apply toward a degree program may differ depending on how long you have been out of school and transfer credit policies per institution.

Take a shorter path to graduation. Apply eligible transfer credits toward the degree of your choice. 

 

For example, the requirements for your degree program may have changed so that the content from your older courses doesn’t match up with the content to earn the new degree. In these instances, your credits still have earned value but may not apply to your selected degree program because the discipline may have evolved while you were away. So, there’s no guarantee your credits will apply the same way when you reenroll after a hiatus. This all depends on what the credits are and the program you plan on starting. A counselor will be able to help determine if your credits will apply for your program.

Note that in some cases you may be able to get college credit for work or life experience or for military service, which may help make up for any credits that you are not able to transfer. 

When do college credits expire? 

As noted, college credits do not expire. Credits you earn from an institution will always remain on your transcript as earned units; however, certain factors can affect whether they can be applied toward a degree program or transferred to a different institution.

For example, suppose you earned a degree in an area with rapidly evolving technology or science-based content. In that case, your credits might not apply after even a relatively short absence from your program. The new information might render the content of your previously completed courses obsolete.

Additionally, schools sometimes change their policies. Something that was acceptable and applied when you first enrolled may cease to be valid because of changing conditions.

Devin Andrews, MAEd, vice president, Office of Admissions & Evaluation at University of Phoenix, explains: “Institutions have academic policies determining which credits can be transferred and how they will apply. In some cases, a policy may say that transfer credit for a particular program or course must have been completed in the last five years (perhaps in IT programs) or 10 years (perhaps some proficiency courses, etc.). The institution will have a rationale for its policy about the recency of the content or ensuring the recency of the students’ skills. So, it’s not that the credits ‘expired’ but that the receiving institution may have policies in place that prevent older courses from applying.”

Ultimately, the question of how long college credits last may not be the right question. It might make more sense to ask, are your credits still relevant to your degree? The answer can help with your planning and decision-making.

Do college credits expire if you don’t graduate? 

College credits do not expire if you don’t graduate. However, you may not always be able to transfer them for credit, because of the previously mentioned factors. If the credits are no longer relevant to your chosen course of study, if you’ve changed your course of study or if you’ve changed institutions, your credits may not be transferable to a new program. This answer depends on what the credits are and your area of study.

According to Andrews, other reasons courses may not transfer include:

  • The grade earned does not meet the institution’s requirement (often C or better).
  • The course is remedial or vocational.
  • The content does not apply to the student’s chosen program.
  • The student has a lot of a certain type of credits and nowhere for them to apply in the new program (e.g., a student took a bunch of art courses or has filled the elective category).
  • The program’s major, in addition to having recency requirements for credits, also might require that a specific grade was earned.

Do college credits transfer? 

It depends. In addition to the situations outlined above, institutions have the right to set their own policies, so each student’s transfer situation and outcome can be unique. Credits must fully align with the new school’s degree requirements, and that can get complicated. This is especially true if you’re transferring between educational institutions with different accreditation types or program goals. 

An academic program’s types of degree requirements and degree structure may also affect transfer credit application. For example, many undergraduate degree programs have three components: major course of study, general education credits and elective credits. Elective credit areas are generally open and accept many types of transfer credit regardless of content and age of the credits. General education courses — typically math; science; literature and language arts; and liberal arts-related subjects — may have more transfer restrictions than electives. However, since general education needs are consistent across many institutions in the United States, such credits may transfer. Research your specific institution’s policies in advance, so you know which classes do and do not transfer.

When applying as a transfer student, contact a college representative if you have questions or concerns. Knowing the receiving institution’s requirements and the age of your course material will help you and the institution determine if your credits are applicable.

Factors that determine if college credits will transfer 

Understanding the reasons why credits can or can’t be transferred can give you a clearer picture of the transferability of your previous coursework. Some of the factors that influence whether college credits will transfer include:

  1.  An institution’s specific transfer policies: Institutions have the latitude to set their own transfer policies and may not accept any credits from other universities or only do so on a limited basis.
  2. An institution’s accreditation status: If the college or university loses accreditation, the credits earned after the accreditation status was lost may no longer be transferable.
  3. Course equivalency: The content and level of the courses for which the student received credits must be similar to those at the receiving institution. Some schools have specific processes to determine if courses align with their curriculum.
  4. Credit hours: An institution may not allow transfers of credits for a course with a significantly different number of credit hours compared to the equivalent course it offers.
  5. How long ago the course was completed: As an example, credits earned more than 10 years ago may not be accepted in transfer toward certain degree requirements. Standards and time frames for assessing the relevancy of content vary between institutions and sometimes between degree programs and disciplines within the same institution.
  6. Grades: Some institutions may require a minimum grade in a course for credits to be eligible for transfer.
  7. Documentation: A record of course descriptions, syllabi and transcripts can help the receiving institution evaluate whether credit can be transferred.

Andrews explains: “Review the institution’s transfer policies in detail. Another tip is to request an unofficial evaluation of credits while considering the institution to get a better idea of how credits will apply. This typically requires the student to get a copy of their unofficial transcripts to provide to the institution they’re interested in attending.”

As a reminder, it’s essential to research the specifics of your situation carefully and contact a college representative if you have questions regarding how your courses may apply toward that specific institution’s degree requirements.

How to transfer college credits 

The process of getting college credits to transfer typically involves obtaining official transcripts from the institution where you earned them and sending them to the school where you want to enroll. In some cases, the receiving institution may be able to request them.

Andrews shares: “At University of Phoenix, we request transcripts on behalf of our students in most cases, which makes enrolling easier and removes the cost of requesting transcripts from prospective students. Some institutions may not provide transcripts to third parties. Students who completed courses at international institutions must request transcripts themselves.”

The receiving institution will evaluate each course on your transcript for applicability toward its degree requirements. 

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College credit transfer policies 

One way to learn how to transfer college credits for a specific school is to check the college’s or university’s website for its academic catalog. This should contain the institution’s transfer policies, course descriptions and degree requirements.

Andrews explains: “Institutions also may have articulation agreements with other institutions, which are typically listed on their website or may be available when talking to an advisor. An articulation agreement is an agreement between institutions that shows how courses from a program at one institution will transfer to another institution.”

If you have questions, contact the institution’s admissions or registrar’s office directly.

It can be helpful to look at the descriptions of the courses you took earlier, if such information is available, and compare them with those at the institution you plan on transferring to. This can give you an idea of whether the courses are aligned or if there is a gap or another factor that could affect whether the credits can transfer. Additionally, the type of program you are applying to — whether a degree or a certificate — may affect whether credits can be transferred.

How long do colleges keep transcripts? 

Depending on local laws and individual school policies, transcripts can be held for a variety of time periods. Typically, as long as the school is accredited and in business, you will be able to access your transcripts. Unique circumstances may exist that make obtaining transcripts more difficult.

In some cases, record retention for students who attended decades ago will not be as good as it is today. If you anticipate obstacles, it’s best to contact the college directly to give it lead time to gather your records.

If you need access to your transcripts and aren’t sure where to find them, you can request them directly from the registrar’s office at the school you attended. The process typically involves filling out paperwork and paying a fee; in some cases, you can order an official copy online.

Steps for returning to college 

If you’re looking to return to college, there are a few key steps:

  1. Explore the types of courses and degrees you want to pursue.
  2. Contact your target school to inquire about its admissions and transfer credit process.
  3. Gather necessary documents, such as transcripts, test scores or references.
  4. Find out how your transfer credits will apply to the new institution.
  5. Submit your application and wait for a decision from the college or university.
  6. If you’re accepted, contact the relevant offices at the school (e.g., student services, the financial aid office) as soon as possible so they can help plan your program of study and other related matters.

Depending on the type of school and the courses you plan to take, you may encounter variations in this process. For example, if you plan to enroll in an online certificate program or take individual courses, additional steps might be needed.

Transfer credits at University of Phoenix 

Transferring credits to the University of Phoenix can save money on tuition and allow students to graduate sooner. At University of Phoenix, students can apply eligible transfer credits from an institutionally accredited university or college toward the degree of their choice.

UOPX will request transcripts on a student’s behalf. Enrollment representatives are available to address specific transfer questions and related inquiries about the application process.

Separate from but related to transfer credits are credits awarded for qualifying work and life experience. Known as Prior Learning Assessments, these are another way to potentially save time and money on your degree at UOPX. 

Learn more on the UOPX website today!

 

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