Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Transferring to a Private College

A new correspondent writes:

I have been away from the academic world for a while, and have been made an offer to use the local community college as a means toward reintegrating myself into the university environment, with hopes of transferring fairly rapidly to a liberal-arts college or university. The quick transfer would be most desirable to me as I already have a number of disparate credits under my belt from my years as an academic dilettante, and would think it best to be able to search the various faculties at the college from which I intend to matriculate for those professors with whom I share similar interests and ideas before I declare my specialty. Thus, I wish to ensure that kindred spirits will be advising my thesis and recommending good graduate or professional programs to me—and likewise me to them.

I have attempted to make applications to these B.A.-granting colleges before, only to be stymied by the volume of paperwork, particularly as such “paperwork” becomes increasingly computerized. Thus, the bureaucratic assistance hopefully provided by the community college would be of great benefit to me.

My questions are these:

All the institutions to which I would desire to transfer are private; knowing that each college may have different policies in this regard, is it most likely that the credits gained at the community college will carry over? It is not that I personally would mind retaking classes in Western civilization, Shakespeare, or rhetoric, or gaining an additional year in which to do my investigative work, but rather that my wallet would.
Even if the credits are not likely to carry over, would the evidence of current academic activity nevertheless incline the admissions personnel at the B.A.-granting institution to look upon my application for study more favourably?
Most generally, is taking classes at a community college an advisable way to progress toward my above-stated purposes, or would you recommend something else?

You will note that I have not specifically named any of the colleges involved herein, as I’m not certain that the specifics are yet relevant; if they are, though, I can gladly provide them. As for myself, though, it may help to note that I would be considered a non-traditional student, being 30 years of age. Those concentrations which would most interest me are philosophy, literature, and languages, all of which I’ve been studying autodidactically for over a decade. I have published poems and essays, worked as an editor, am bilingual, and have finally come to the decision that it would likely be best for me to make my career in academia.

(In a followup, he noted that he’s American and writing in the American context; the English spellings are for reasons of his own. I asked because I can only answer within the American context.)

I feel ethically bound to warn you that full-time positions in academia in the areas of philosophy, literature, and languages are hotly contested, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. While the decision to take that path is your own, I would strongly advise avoiding heavy debt burdens to do it.

That said, I’ll take a shot at each question in sequence, and then ask my wise and worldly readership to help fill out (or correct) the picture.

1. Will the credits transfer? Given that you’re looking at private colleges, the answer will vary from college to college. I can imagine two effective ways to get specifics here. One, if you already know which four-year schools you’d target, would be to talk to them directly. With which cc’s do they have “articulation agreements”? From which cc’s do they take transfers? What are their expectations or requirements for transfer students? It’s common, for example, for them to take certain courses but not others; if you know that when you start at the cc, you can build your schedule to maximize transferability.

If you were targeting public colleges or universities, this would be somewhat easier, since many states have statewide policies or agreements on transfer credits. But private colleges can set their own policies.

You’ll also need to be very specific in your questions. Sometimes a college will “take” certain courses, but it won’t count them towards your degree program; instead, it will assign them “free elective” status. “Free electives” are where credits go to die. Beware.

The other way would be to go to the cc you have in mind, and ask to speak to the transfer counselor. (This person is usually connected to the Admissions office.) Ask about the cc’s recent record of transfers to the colleges you have in mind. How many students went? How many credits were accepted? What are the quirks of admission to each?

Obviously, these approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and you may be well advised to do both.

2. Is a fresh start likely to improve your chances of admission? If your previous experience was an an “academic dilettante,” then probably. Nothing proves the ability to succeed like a record of success. If you can build a convincing story to the effect that you lacked focus at 18, but you’ve gained life experience and a sense of what you want since then, and your record at the cc shows talent and drive, you should be a very compelling candidate. (Of course, if you do poorly at the cc, that won’t help.) A couple of years at or near a 4.0 should put to rest any misgivings about ability or focus. At cc tuition levels, they should also take the edge off your loan burdens later. Some private colleges even have scholarships specifically for transfer students, so you could conceivably finish with a prestigious degree at a very deep discount. In this market, that’s a pretty good deal.

3. Is a community college a good starting point? It may well be, though again, not every cc is the same. Do some legwork. Does your particular one have a good record of transfer? Does it have enough of the courses you would need? Are you willing to forego the joys of dorm life? (At your age, that may be a blessing.) On the flip side, are you comfortable saving thousands of dollars and having small classes?

If you can honestly answer ‘yes’ to each of those, then yes, it may be a very good option.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or correct)?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.