THE GOOD NEWS, AND THE WILD WEST
The good news is that every major university is investing heavily in online education, and it’s about time. The bad news? Well, there really is no bad news if you take the right approach and go in with open eyes. But it can feel a bit like the Wild West out there.
This is true in several ways when it comes to choosing the university and classes you wish to attend online.
But the area of least consistency is course credit transfers.
Whether you have earned course credit for past work from AP tests, a junior college, military credits, or a four-year university, or you are wondering whether you might someday want to transfer credits you are about to earn, there’s one thing you need to understand: the only way to get a direct answer that you can count on is by getting confirmation from the university you wish to attend, in writing.
Of course there are some services which allow you to enter details of your past coursework then inform you where those credits should be accepted—but there are often gaps in their coverage, and you still need to get a guarantee before you can be certain.
Which leads us to one very positive way of approaching the issue: questions about incoming and outbound credit transferring, when asked the right way, give you a perfect additional reason for speaking with the admissions office, and possibly the academic department to which you’re applying. In other words, use your questions to help build a positive relationship with, and even increase your chances of getting accepted to, the program you wish to attend.
We’ve written elsewhere about the need to make contact with the admissions offices of your top choices for online education. So we won’t repeat the advice here other than to emphasize how there are so many benefits, tangible and intangible, of making a good first impression and having someone who is on your side in the admissions process.
You do not wish to abuse this person’s valuable time, and one way of assuring that is by reading all of the material they make available to you before asking questions. Many of them have a step-by-step process, FAQ-style answers, and even videos, specifically produced to answer your questions about how they handle everything, including credit transferring. Some will be so complete you may have very few questions left, some not.
Below is a breakdown of how to approach “incoming credits” and “outgoing credits”—that is, the conversations with the college you’re applying to and the college you’re leaving.
The key to remember is that the credit-in process is more straightforward and less risky than the credit-out one. If you have credits you want them to honor, it may become somewhat of a negotiation, firm or gentle.
They want your business. In fact the competition is so stiff that if you are a qualified incoming student, they are under some real pressure to land you. You are in the driver’s seat, but remember, you may also want to qualify for financial aid or scholarship opportunities. Your contact wants to be on your side. You can be firm about what is fair for you without burning the warm relationship.
So, even if their public-facing FAQ or other information seems to rigidly detail which of your credits they will take and which they won’t, there’s nothing wrong with letting them know they are at the top of your list, but it’s very important to you that your past work and time not be considered wasted. Some admissions offices will take your detailed explanation of a course you completed and bring it to an academic department for a quick review. It might only take a faculty member with the right title a minute to look it over and say, “If this is verified, then yes, we can accept that as passing x course for this degree.”
Some programs will combine your performance on admissions exams with your past transcript to decide whether to honor any earned course credits. If that concerns you, you’re not alone. Even world-leading experts, existing PhD professors with tenure, often admit the last time they worked on a particular subject was as an undergrad, and they’ve forgotten the nitty gritty details. Welcome the challenge, brush up in advance if you can, but don’t worry about it. The point of admissions tests are to see where you are. And the point of going for an online degree is, of course, educating yourself. If that means plowing a few of the same rows you once did in the past, it’s good for you and your brain, so don’t spend too much time worrying about it.
Still, if the chance is there and it seems right, negotiate. Do it in a fun way, make it just part of the conversation, keep your admissions contact on your side. You never know how many hours and dollars they can save you.
And here’s a tip that works in so many ways, which we repeat often: if you have a list of your top three-to-five programs, go ahead and be a little firmer with the one on the bottom of the list and see what you can get them to do for you.
When considering any school, you need to be a lot more sensitive and, really, a lot more interested in the potential of transferring what you’re about to earn. For one, the admissions office wants students who value their degree offering, who intend to stick it through to the end and go out into the world brandishing their name on a shiny new diploma.
That said, they also value intelligent students who are looking out for their own future. It’s the Wild West and you are risking your education investment in relatively new territory. They should try to sell you on the value of their degree, on the value of each of their classes, and if they don’t think any other university will honor the course credits you are earning, the hours you are taking on, then why should you value them?
Which is NOT how you should ask the question, unless your contact in the admissions office loves blunt conversation and has a sense of humor about belligerence! But it’s a fair, friendly, attitude underlying your curiosity.
With most contacts, especially early in the relationship, approach the question with sensitivity. Bring it up after you’ve asked them some of the questions we recommend for your admissions conversation. Part of your due diligence in general should be finding out just how valuable the credits you’re going to earn really are, and a key aspect of that depends upon which kind of online program you are attending (micro degree, bachelor’s, master’s). You need to know whether the courses in your program are part of the full curriculum on campus, and treated identically. This is true on an extra layer if you decide to pursue a micro-degree: are the courses the same as those offered in the full bachelor’s and master’s curricula?
Which leads to the next step in the process that is easier than dancing on ice with your current admissions office: pick a place you might want to attend in the future, and contact admissions there. Let them know you are about to be enrolled in a program that suits your current circumstances, but you’d like to find out if they would honor credits earned at a future date. Be prepared for them to sell you on their own programs. They may even downplay your chances to transfer credits or emphasize the complexity involved. Unless they start to capture your attention with that, let them know you’re already committed, but you have a plan for your long term education. You may pursue advanced degrees and possibly even have your employer help with attending classes on campus at a future date. Would they honor online course work from other universities, and if not, might they change that policy in the future?
Sample Questions (adjust according to the kind of program for which you are applying)
- Do the online courses I will be attending in your program have the exact same title and credit value as those in the campus course catalog? If not, why the difference?
- Do I receive a diploma at the successful completion of this program? Will I receive a formal transcript detailing the individual courses along with it? Will employers be able to verify my transcript with the university?
- On a related note, in the event of an unexpected life emergency that forces me to interrupt my education, can I resume at a later date? Do you have relationships with other universities where you honor course work already completed?
- If I earn a micro degree, but then want to continue my education, can the courses I passed count toward a bachelor’s or master’s degree within your university? What about with other universities?
- Conversely, if I work toward a full degree, and several of my courses are part of a related micro-degree program, could I pursue that micro degree without having to repeat those courses?
What Are You Paying For?
The credit transfer issue is part of one fundamental consideration: how tangible is the asset you are buying and earning?
Keeping this in mind as you ask questions of an admissions department will help prevent you from sounding as though you want to ditch their program at the first opportunity.
In fact, second only to the fundamental improvement of your mind and knowledge, this is the primary factor in building your education plan. Degrees are comprised of the courses required, and each course is measured in credits earned. Some courses are honored far and wide, and even have similar numbers such as 101 or 50B across many universities. As you proceed, courses become more detailed and occasionally more specific to the professor, and this is one reason some universities give you a chance to explain those details and negotiate with a department about honoring them.
Which means some of the courses you will be taking may be offered and taught by professors with a great deal of clout among their peers in the university system. When you are researching your online degree, whether it be micro or master’s or anything in between, identify as many of the specific courses you will be taking in advance, as possible. Look into the background of your teacher. Be aware, very often the professor named on the course heading can change over time, before you’ve gotten to it, and whether you attend an online or a physical campus, the more basic a course is, the less the chance of having a single direct communication with the professor. But that does not mean you can’t claim the credit you deserve.
It is understandable that the overall education system across the planet slowly adopted new advances in information technology. Software, hardware, and networks were buggy, slow, unreliable, and presented on two-dimensional screens. For as many new techniques clever developers produced, there were incompatibilities, missing features, and other frustrations that caused teachers to become customer support reps, or just resulted in wasting too many hours of everyone’s time.
But now, online offerings are exploding, and universities are trying to maintain quality while scrambling to stay current. This scramble is a positive thing with negative aspects, and as is always the case, the more you take charge of your own interests the better your chances of making this asset you are purchasing pay off.
We use terms like ‘asset’ and ‘pay off’ both literally and as metaphor, because our passion for education starts with what it means for the expansion of your mind, and the opportunity, knowledge and hard thinking gives every single person—no matter what phase of their lives—to better orient themselves in the universe.
We make no apologies for having a lofty attitude about what education truly is supposed to be. But realistically we recognize that ‘supposed to be’ and ‘is’ often vary. Do the research about the specific degree, and the classes that comprise it, in advance, before they’ve earned your funds and your dedication.