A Guide to Transferring From an On-Campus University to Online Learning

When you think of higher education, the first thing that comes to mind is probably an on-campus learning experience at a bustling university. On-campus education offers structure, the opportunity for communal learning and a strong sense of community. But it may not be the best decision for everyone, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

You may enroll in a traditional four-year educational institution, only to discover that it wasn’t the right choice. It may be that your financial situation has changed, and you can no longer afford high tuitions. You may also be experiencing a change in your life circumstances or you might want to change your major or field of study.

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    Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused many college students (and prospective students) to rethink their plans and many are thinking of dropping out. Others have seen their universities shift to virtual classrooms with no change to tuition prices and are considering more affordable learning pathways. According to a recent survey of more than 80,000 high school and college students and their parents, 22% stated they are planning to transfer or take time off from school because of the virus.

    While transferring from a four-year program to an alternative learning program may provide a better college experience for some individuals, there are important issues to consider before making the switch, like choosing the right alternative learning program, transferring academic credits, making adjustments to student loans and sorting out your financial aid.

    What are your options for transferring?

    Due to COVID-19, many students are now exploring more alternative educational choices. Each has its advantages and disadvantages compared to on-campus learning at a traditional college. Consider what each type of educational program offers, who they’re best for and how their educational, financial and social aspects match your desires and career goals.

    Online degrees

    Online degrees, also known as distance learning or MOOCs (massive open online courses), give you the flexibility to learn at your own pace and in your own time. Instead of physically attending class, you attend lessons, take part in discussion groups and complete assignments — all virtually. Many on-campus colleges and universities offer online courses and several virtual programs now offer bachelor’s degrees.

    Even before the recent coronavirus crisis, students have been looking at lower-cost alternatives to the traditional four-year college. Inside Higher Ed reported that in 2018, more than 30% of university and college students were enrolled in at least one online class. In 2019, enrollment for bachelor’s level programs dropped, continuing a several-year trend towards educational alternatives.

    Apart from new college students trying to make the best of the current situation, the online classroom environment is ideal for a busy professional with a full-time job, or someone caring for children or other family members. Also, remote learning can be a more comfortable and convenient option for students with disabilities.

    Educational impact

    For a student accustomed to in-person interactions with professors and fellow students, online classes may be challenging, even with today’s interactive streaming video technology. With online learning, you can earn an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree or certificate. If you plan to transfer credits from an online school to a traditional college, make sure the institution you choose is fully accredited. The U.S. Department of Education has a searchable list of accredited postsecondary institutions.

    Financial impact

    Remote learning is significantly less expensive than an on-campus college. An online bachelor’s degree costs between $38,496 and $60,593 for the complete program. That’s compared to an average cost of more than $40,000 per year for a private, campus-based, four-year program (or $27,120 for out-of-state students and $11,260 for in-state students per year at public colleges). Keep in mind that if you have a student loan, you can’t use it for an online program. You must reapply for a new loan.

    Social impact

    When you switch from an on-campus program to virtual learning, there may be a lost sense of community. Part of the on-campus experience is access to group learning and other communal activities. While a Zoom discussion group may be novel and fun, it’s not the same as interacting with other students in person and may not offer the same educational benefits. Online learning is best for those who are self-motivated and willing to initiate social interactions.

    Community college

    Also known as junior colleges, city colleges or two-year colleges, community colleges give students access to postsecondary education at a fraction of the cost of a traditional university. They also offer more night classes, making them convenient for people who work during the day. Nationwide, there are more than 1,000 community colleges, so they are easily accessible in nearly every U.S. community. Most are public institutions that are funded by the state and fully accredited. Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees and certificates. While some now offer bachelor’s degrees, community colleges have typically focused on specialized skill training for the workplace or as preparation for a four-year institution.

    Educational impact

    Community colleges usually have smaller classes than four-year colleges, which leads to more personalized attention. These types of institutions are vocational schools, preparing students for specific occupations and new technologies. Many partner with local employers in areas of training and job placement for a smoother school-to-work transition. Since most community colleges are accredited, the credits earned can be transferred to four-year institutions and graduate programs. You can see if a community college is accredited on the U.S. Department of Education’s DAPIP (Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs). If you plan to transfer credits from a community college to a four-year school, speak with an advisor to ensure that the classes you take align with what is required for that higher-level degree.

    Financial impact

    During the 2019-2020 academic year, the average tuition at a community college was $3,730 — close to one-third of the annual cost of a public, four-year school. Such a contrast makes community colleges an affordable option for lower-income families and those working full-time who wish to advance their careers.

    Social impact

    Community colleges generally do not offer on-campus housing, so there isn’t the level of community and social engagement that you would find at a traditional college or university. Two-year colleges may have organizations and clubs, but since most students work and live off-site, it won’t feel the same as a college campus that places a strong focus on community and social activities.

    Vocational training/skill certifications

    Like community colleges, vocational training programs and skill certifications can teach students applicable skills that can be used to gain employment immediately upon graduating. This type of learning program is also known as a technical school or trade school. Hands-on skills training for many kinds of career paths is available, from electrical engineering, health services and graphic design to welding, woodworking and computer coding. In these instructional programs, students are taught the specific skills they will need for in-demand jobs. In the case of skill certification, an employee might enroll in a class to take their career to the next level.

    Educational impact

    Unlike in online degree programs and community colleges, vocational training doesn’t offer a degree certificate. However, a student who completes the program will receive a certificate that acknowledges their advanced study in their field. Vocational training programs are typically one to two years or less, and unlike traditional colleges, every class applies directly to your selected career.

    Financial impact

    Since trade schools are usually private, for-profit institutions, they tend to be more expensive than a community college, which offers similar types of trade-oriented programs. However, compared to a four-year college, vocational training is significantly less expensive. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost for a trade school program is $33,000, which is equivalent to one year at a traditional college.

    Social impact

    Vocational schools teach skills to ensure immediate employment after the program is completed, so they do not offer social activities and community involvement like a four-year college. These types of schools are intended to be “fast tracks” to employment. Many students may already be working full-time and taking classes at night.

    Things to consider before making the switch

    Consider these important issues before making the switch from a four-year college to an alternative learning program.

    Choose the best educational option for your career goals

    When deciding between a traditional college, community college, online degree program or vocational school, consider how you want to use your degree or certification to further your career. A community college or hands-on vocational school might be the best choice if you wish to learn a trade and find a job immediately after graduation. Full-time employees who want to further their career in their chosen field may find that a trade school or community college offers the flexibility of taking classes at night, either for an advanced degree or for certification in a specialized area. Online degree programs can also be taken during evenings and on weekends, whenever one’s schedule allows.

    Transfer your student loans

    Unfortunately, student loans don’t transfer between different schools. While some online colleges and most community colleges will accept Federal Student Aid (FSA), you will have to submit a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FSA), you will have to submit a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application. There are several advantages of federal student loans, such as not needing a credit history, lower rates than private loans and greater payment flexibility. The U.S. Department of Education explains the differences between federal and private student loans. On their website, you can also learn about the financial aid process and the steps you must take to see if you are eligible for federal aid.

    There are also other types of financial aid available for students who attend online programs, such as state and institutional loans, grants, scholarships and work-study programs.

    If you’re ready to transfer your student loan, here are some tips to make the process easier:

    • Fill out the FAFSA form. In addition to federal student aid, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form is also used to determine eligibility for federal grants and work-study programs, as well as for many state-based and college-based aid programs.
    • Transferring colleges could impact your financial aid and eligibility for college loans. Your new school will have to provide you with a financial aid package to begin the new process. For those entering into a new academic year, fill out a new FAFSA form. If transferring during a school year, you must update your existing FAFSA by selecting “Make FAFSA Corrections.”
    • You might need to cancel your financial aid disbursement. Money from your student loan is sent to the institution where you’re attending. If you transfer, you must notify your old school’s financial aid office to cancel that payment. For private loans, the lender must be contacted. You’re not allowed to transfer funds from the old program to the new one.
    • Time is of the essence — pay close attention to dates and deadlines. This is especially important if you transfer in the middle of an academic year, as institutions will have different financial aid deadlines. A school may disburse funds once per term or at the start and midpoint of your program. Keep this in mind if you need your old school’s refund to help pay for the new school.
    • Convey your plans to your lender. With many loans, it is possible to defer payments, and your loan might also provide a grace period following graduation. However, as soon as you transfer from one school to another, the lender will be notified. If they think you left school, you may suddenly be asked to start making loan payments. When a student loan goes into repayment, you’ll automatically be put on a repayment plan. It is your responsibility to ensure that your enrollment in the new school is reported.

    Seek out financial aid

    There may be fewer scholarship opportunities for students who are transferring to another accredited program but enough scholarship funds available. Speak to the financial aid department at your new educational facility to learn about their financial aid opportunities. Students who are currently receiving private scholarships should reach out to the scholarship granting organization to see if that aid can be transferred to the new program. You may have to apply for new financial aid, but there may be a local program at the new institution or in your state that you are eligible for.

    Katie Granholm, College Counselor at Trinity High School in River Forest, IL, says, “If family finances have been impacted by [COVID-19] in a way that affects the student’s ability to pay for college, students are encouraged to reach out to the college’s financial aid office. Many schools have processes in place to request a financial hardship appeal. Financial aid packages are based off tax returns from 2018, and colleges are usually willing to consider more recent financial information if a student’s ability to pay has been impacted.”

    Contact: Katie Granholm, Trinity High School College Counselor via Elizabeth Bowers eb03169@gmail.com

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Julie Stroller

    Contributing Writer

    Julie Stoller is a freelance writer, editor and researcher with more than a decade of experience. She has collaborated with more than 160 clients, including a business training organization and universities in the Boston area.