You’ve probably seen them on the TV news, or found their photos in your Facebook feed: Men and women in their 80s and 90s who’ve finally realized a long-held dream of earning a college degree.
And perhaps, inspired after hearing their stories, you wondered to yourself: Hmmm. I would love to go back to college and finish my degree, even after all these years. But I don’t want to start from scratch. Would the college credits I earned years ago even be good anymore? Do college credits expire?
The answer is no. Not really. Well, maybe.
OK … it depends.
When Do College Credits Expire?
Some folks wonder: Do college credits expire after five years? Technically, college credits don’t expire. When students earn credits for taking college courses, those credits will always appear on the official transcript from the school they attended.
The question is whether a different school or program will accept those credits if a student wants to transfer them. And that can be a gray area.
The good news is that older, “nontraditional learners”—undergraduate and graduate students in their mid-20s, 30s, 40s, and up—are not an unusual sight on college campuses these days. Schools that hope to attract students who are looking to complete a degree may be especially open-minded about transferring their credits.
The Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Statistics projects that in 2020 and 2021, more than a third of students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities will be 25 or older. And it has been that way for decades. So most college admissions offices should be prepared to answer questions about the possibility of transferring old credits, or if some credits have a shelf life at their school.
Those policies can vary. A college doesn’t have to accept transfer credits unless it has a formal agreement with the transferring institution or there’s a state policy that requires it. A credit’s transferability also may depend on the type of course, the school it’s coming from, or how old the credit is. These deciding factors are sometimes referred to as the three R’s: relevance, reputation, and recency.
What Criteria Do Schools Consider?
Here are some things schools may look at when deciding whether to accept transfer credits:
Accreditation Is Key
Accreditation means that an independent agency assesses the quality of an institution or program on a regular basis. Accredited schools typically only take credits from other similarly accredited institutions.
General Education Credits Usually Transfer
Subjects like literature, languages, and history tend to qualify for transfer without a challenge. So if you completed those core classes while working toward your bachelor’s degree, you may not have to repeat them.
Other Classes May Have a ‘Use By’ Date
Because the information and methods taught in science, technology, engineering, and math courses can quickly evolve, credits for these classes may have a more limited shelf life—typically 10 years.
Graduate Credits May Have a Short Life Expectancy
If the coursework for your field of study in graduate school would now be considered out of date, it’s likely that some or all of your credits won’t transfer. Graduate program credits are generally denied after five to seven years.
There Could Be a Limit on Transfers
Many institutions set a maximum number of transfer credits they’ll accept toward a degree program. For example, the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences won’t take more than 60 credits from two-year institutions for an undergraduate degree, and no more than 90 credits from four-year institutions. No more than 12 of the last 42 credits earned for a degree may be transfer credits. At the University of Arizona, the maximum number of semester credits accepted from a two-year college is 64. There is no limit on the credits transferred from a four-year institution, but a transfer student must earn 30 semester credits at Arizona to earn an undergraduate degree. And credit won’t be given for grades lower than a C.
Some Transfer Credits May Count Only as Electives
If a student’s new school determines that an old class was not equivalent to the class it offers, it may require the student to repeat the coursework in order to fulfill requirements toward a major. But the new school still may consider the old class for general elective credits, which can at least reduce the overall course load required to obtain a degree.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, You Can Try Again
Many schools allow students to appeal a credit transfer decision—whether it’s an outright denial or a decision that a course will be allowed only as an elective. The time limit for an appeal may be a year, a few weeks, or just a few days, so it can pay to be prepared with the evidence necessary to make your case.
The relevant paperwork might include a class syllabus, samples of completed coursework, and a letter from the instructor that explains the coursework.
Students also may have to meet with someone at the school to talk about their qualifications, or they may be asked to take a placement exam to test their current level of knowledge in a subject.
How to Request Transcripts
Some schools allow students to view an unofficial record of their academic history online or in person through the registrar’s office. So if it’s been a while and you aren’t sure what classes you took or what your grades were, you might want to start there.
After a refresher on what and how you did at your old college, it might be time to check out how your target school or schools deal with transfer credits.
Many colleges post their transfer credit policies on their websites, so you can get an idea of what classes you may or may not have to repeat. Or you can use a website like Transferology , or try the Will My Credits Transfer feature at CollegeTransfer.net, to get more information about which credits schools across the country are likely to accept.
When you’re ready to get even more serious, you may want to see if your target school makes transfer counselors available, or if someone in the academic department you’re interested in will evaluate your record and advise you as to how many of the credits you’ve earned might be accepted toward your major.
You’ll probably need to have an official transcript sent directly to your target institution to document your grade-point average, credit hours, coursework, and any degree information or honors designations. There may be a small fee for this service, and it could take several days to process the request.
Once your target school has had time to review your transcripts, you can expect to receive a written notice or a phone call telling you how many of your credits will transfer. When you know where you stand, you can decide if you want to appeal any of the school’s transfer decisions, if you’re ready to move forward in the application process, or if you want to check out other schools.
It’s important to note that students who still owe money to their old school may find it difficult to have an official transcript sent to a target school.
While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act gives students the right to inspect their educational records, the law doesn’t require schools to provide a signed and sealed hard copy of a transcript to students who haven’t fulfilled their financial obligations.
State governments may have different laws when it comes to withholding these documents, and schools may have their own policies. So some students might hit a road bump at the registrar’s office if they’re behind on their loans or haven’t paid an old fee.
How Old Debt Can Affect Transferring Credits
The problems caused by student debt can go beyond trouble with transcripts.
If you’re planning to return to school and you’re behind on your student loans, you may have difficulty borrowing more money until your old loans are back on track. Borrowers who lose eligibility for any additional federal student aid, such as loans and grants.
The Federal Student Aid Program offers flexible repayment plans, loan rehabilitation and consolidation opportunities, forgiveness programs, and more for borrowers hoping to get back in good standing. The Federal Student Aid office’s recommended first step (preferably before becoming delinquent or going into default) is to contact the loan servicer to discuss repayment options.
Another possible solution for those who have fallen behind on their payments can be private student loan refinancing. Borrowers with federal or private student loans, or both, may be able to take out a new loan with a private lender and use it to pay off any existing student debt.
That new loan may come with a lower interest rate or lower payments than the older loans, especially if the borrower has a strong employment history and a good credit record.
Even if you’re doing just fine and staying up to date on your student loan payments if you’re thinking about going back to school and you’ll need more money, a new loan with just one monthly payment might help make things more manageable.
However, if you have federal loans and refinancing sounds appealing, it’s critical that you understand what you could lose by switching to a private lender—including federal benefits such as deferment, income-driven repayment plans, and public student loan forgiveness.
Moving Forward (With a Little Help)
If you’re excited about the possibility of going back to school to finish your degree (or earn a new one), you might not have to let concerns about financing keep you from moving forward.
You can contact your current service provider with questions about payment options on your federal loans. And if you’re interested in refinancing with a private loan, you can start by shopping for the best rates online, then drill down to what could work best for you.
With SoFi, for example, you can prequalify online for student loan refinancing without completing a full application, decide which rate and loan length suits your needs, and then finish up your application online if you like what you see.
SoFi offers live customer support seven days a week. And if the application is accepted, SoFi will pay off old loans and issue a new student loan with one manageable monthly payment.
There is no application or origination fee (that’s something you should always check), and SoFi members have access to career coaching, financial advice, and other benefits that could come in handy when starting a new chapter in life.
SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are looking to refinance federal student loans, please be aware that the White House has announced up to $20,000 of student loan forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for qualifying borrowers whose student loans are federally held. Additionally, the federal student loan payment pause and interest holiday has been extended beyond December 31, 2022. Please carefully consider these changes before refinancing federally held loans with SoFi, since the amount or portion of your federal student debt that you refinance will no longer qualify for the federal loan payment suspension, interest waiver, or any other current or future benefits applicable to federal loans. If you qualify for federal student loan forgiveness and still wish to refinance, leave unrefinanced the amount you expect to be forgiven to receive your federal benefit.
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Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
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