The most traditional transfer pathway is transferring from a two-year college to a four-year one. This is called a vertical transfer. It is the classic transfer route, and credits are most successfully transferred this way. A reverse transfer, as would make sense, is the transfer from a four-year institution to a two-year institution. Lateral transferring encompasses transfers between institutions of the same type: two-year to two-year and four-year to four-year. Credits are less likely to carry over to the second institution for reverse and lateral transfer students, but it is possible if you work with an admissions counselor.


For students who are transferring from a two-year institution to a four-year institution:

A vertical transfer is the solution for students who have begun their education at a community college but plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the future. Between 2003 and 2009, these transfers made up 37.2% of all transfers. They involve transferring from a two-year institution to a four-year institution. In a vertical transfer, you are leaving a certificate or associate’s degree program to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Vertical transfers are designed to occur after the second year of a two-year program through which a student would complete his or her associate’s degree. However, only 3.2% of transfer students receive their degrees before transferring. Students who first complete an associate’s degree and then transfer to a four-year institution are 16% more likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees than their peers who did not complete their associate’s.

Some students transfer immediately after receiving their associate’s degrees and enter their four-year institutions as juniors. Other students may transfer before completing requirements for the associate’s degree, but their earned credits may apply toward the general education requirements of their bachelor’s degrees. Note that students who first complete their associate’s degrees are more likely to complete their bachelor’s. These students will receive two diplomas, one from each institution. Students who do not first complete their associate’s degrees before going on to finish their bachelor’s only receive one diploma.

Four out of five community college students intend to transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but only about 25% of them are successful in doing so. With detailed planning and research, you can overcome these odds and earn a four-year degree.

Attending a two-year institution first is not a setback. You can save money on your degree(s) and graduate with two distinct college experiences. If you hope to complete a vertical transfer, consider articulation agreements when choosing both your community college and prospective four-year schools.

For students who are transferring from a four-year institution to a four-year institution or a two-year institution to a two-year institution:

A lateral transfer is a transfer from one institution to a similar institution. The length of the program does not change. This means that students will work toward the same credential (associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree, for example) that they were working toward before their transfers to their new schools. These types of transfers account for approximately 15% of those by students attending two-year colleges and 50–60% of those by students attending four-year colleges.

Typically, the motivation for a lateral transfer is personal preference or academic fit. It is less often about poor academic performance or lack of money. A student starts at one school, realizes that the fit isn’t perfect, and begins to explore other similar options. Maybe the student wants to be closer to home or friends; would prefer a school with a different selection of majors; or realizes that he or she has fallen into bad habits and thinks that a change of scenery may make a difference.

Fortunately, nearly 70% of transfer students who switch four-year institutions complete their bachelor’s degrees. They are, however, less likely to finish their degrees than students who never transferred at all (79%).

For students who are transferring from a four-year institution to a two-year institution:

A reverse transfer is a transfer from a four-year institution to a two-year institution, meaning that students leave a bachelor’s degree program to pursue an associate’s degree or certificate. It’s more common than it seems. In fact, a study that ended in 2009 found that 16.7% of all transfer students were reverse transferring. There are many reasons a student would prefer a shorter program. A reverse transfer could be about saving money since two-year schools are typically more affordable. It could be that the student just doesn’t fit with the personality of the four-year institution and wants to enjoy smaller classrooms and more interaction with professors. Returning and adult students are also prone to completing reverse transfers. They may decide to apply their previously earned credits to an associate’s degree.

A small number of students may reverse transfer to co-enroll. This means that they are simultaneously enrolled in both a four-year and a two-year institution to speed up their bachelor’s degrees. They may complete prerequisites or summer classes at community college. Most reverse transfer students do not co-enroll, though, so as would be expected, their chances of obtaining a bachelor’s degree are low: only 22%. However, some students elect to transfer more than once, and reverse transfers who then transfer vertically have a 49% graduation rate from the four-year institution at which they ended up.

Ultimately, receiving a bachelor’s degree may not be the goal for reverse transfer students, and there are many benefits to reverse transferring, particularly if you do not fit with your four-year institution or are struggling academically. Attending a community college is much cheaper than a four-year institution, and if you are motivated to get your associate’s degree, you can end up in the workforce—making money—sooner than your peers at four-year institutions. Class sizes are often smaller than at public four-year schools, and as a result, you can have a better relationship with both your professors and classmates. You are unlikely to be taught by graduate students, so your teachers are teaching for the sake of teaching, not research or tenure. There are drawbacks to reverse transferring, however. You will likely need to find a new place to live, and campus life may be lacking compared to that of your previous institution.

Surprisingly, reverse transfers also account for students who vertically transfer but never end up receiving their degrees, not just students who transfer from a four-year institution to a two-year institution or co-enroll. The National Student Clearinghouse has created an initiative to retroactively grant associate’s degrees to students who never completed their bachelor’s degrees. They do this by reverse transferring the credits a student earned at a four-year institution back to a community college that will then grant the student an associate’s degree. Between 2003 and 2013, two million students attended college for more than two years and didn’t earn a degree. 78% of those students vertically transferred from their community colleges. The Clearinghouse Reverse Transfer Project aims to help eligible students gain their associate’s degrees, degrees they’ve earned but not received, regardless of their final level of educational attainment. They may be eligible if they’ve completed the right number and combination of classes required for the degree. Projects are currently in development in Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Page last updated: 04/2017