There are several benefits to earning your bachelor's degree, including helping you qualify for more job opportunities and increasing your salary potential—but that value comes with a commitment: In the US, it often takes between four and five years to get your degree if you attend school full time.
However, if you've taken college courses in the past and are considering completing your degree, you may be able to apply your previously earned college credits to a new degree program, even if it's been many years since you've stepped into a classroom.
In this article, we'll discuss how long college credits typically last, as well as how you can transfer your previously earned college credits into a new degree program.
As a general rule, college credits do not expire. Once you’ve taken a college course, completed the requirements, and were granted the credits, those are yours forever. Whether you can earn a degree with those credits, however, is a bit more complicated. Ultimately, it’ll be up to your new institution to decide.
To determine whether your previously earned college credits will apply toward a new degree program, you’ll want to learn about the transfer credit policies at your institution of choice. Or if you’re hoping to return to your previous institution, learn about their reinstatement and readmission policies.
Colleges have freedom in determining whether or not to count previously earned course credits toward a current degree program, and the only way to find out whether your credits will transfer is to contact your new university directly.
Whether you are aiming to revive credits from a community college, online program, four-year university, or elsewhere, there’s hope that your degree path might be shorter than you think.
If you want to try to guess whether your credits will transfer before you apply to a program, there are some general insights that may help. There is no definitive “5-year rule” or “10-year rule” regarding transfer credits, though there are three common areas of consideration: relevance, recency, and accreditation.
Are your previously earned college credits relevant to your new program’s degree requirements? Compare the courses you’ve taken to the program requirements and look for any potential alignment in the course content and objectives.
If you retook the course today, would there be crucial differences in the material? A course on the fall of the Western Roman Empire might largely cover the same material whether it was taken in the year 2021 or the year 2001; however a 2021 course on data security might be quite different from a similar course taken just 10 years prior.
Consider the field of study of your previously earned credits: if it is susceptible to new developments, such as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) course, older credits may be outdated. Generally, core curriculum, language, and humanities courses have a higher potential for a longer shelf life. Graduate courses may have a shorter shelf life, about five to ten years, because graduate programs are designed to focus on the latest information and interpretations within a field.
Accreditation status refers to the institution that granted your course credits. In order to express certain standards of education, college and university programs are assessed by third-party accreditors. You can check your previous institution’s accreditation status using the US Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. If you did not attend an accredited institution, it may be more difficult to receive transfer credits for your past coursework.
To find out if your credits qualify for transfer, look for your new school’s transfer credit guidelines on their website’s admissions page.
Most colleges and universities will state any explicit limitations regarding transfer credits on their website or in documents outlining their application process. If they don’t list any credit age limitations, it’s possible that they will consider transfer credits from all previous courses, regardless of age.
Depending on how many credits you’ve earned, you might also want to take note of any upper limits on the number of transfer credits a school will accept. More accessible undergraduate programs may accept up to 90 transfer credits, or about three years of full-time coursework, toward a bachelor’s degree.
You can contact the school’s admissions office for more information on both credit age limitations and maximum transfer credits. Before you contact the admissions office, you may want to be ready to provide the following information:
The name of your previous institution
Dates you attended
Classes you took and number of credits earned
The program you are looking to transfer into
You can find the first three items on your transcript from your previous institution. See below to learn how to get a copy of your transcript.
Ask your new school’s admissions office if they offer a cursory transcript review for prospective transfer students. Commonly, institutions won’t offer an official transfer credit report specific to your coursework prior to admission, but some offer a cursory transcript review for prospective students. These reviews are non-binding—so the total number of transfer credits you receive upon enrollment may be slightly different—but the review can provide some insight specific to your previous coursework.
If you are concerned about age limitations, look for transfer-friendly programs. For example, University of North Texas’s Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences online degree program, available on Coursera, was designed with transfer students in mind, allowing students to transfer up to 90 qualifying credits from community colleges, technical institutions, and/or other universities. Their policy doesn’t specify an age limit on those credits, so incoming students are able to submit any college transcripts, regardless of age, for consideration.
Once you’ve been accepted into your program of choice, decided to enroll, and accepted your admissions offer, it’s time to transfer your previously earned credits to your new institution. You’ll have to coordinate your transfer with both the registrar’s office of your previous institution and the admissions office of your new institution.
The institution’s registrar is responsible for maintaining all student documentation, including academic records such as transcripts. Your transcript will list all courses taken and total credits earned. Regardless of the amount of time that’s passed since you attended college, the registrar should keep a copy of your academic transcript forever.
Although there’s no federal law mandating a period of time that colleges and universities must keep student transcripts, chances are that your transcript is part of your permanent record. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) recommends that institutions permanently keep academic records for every student. In a 2018 survey of 1,045 institutions across 18 countries, AACRAO reported that 97 percent of the respondents “identif[ied] the transcript as a permanent document.”
Go through the registrar's office at your previous institution in order to receive either a copy of your unofficial transcript (useful for your personal knowledge about your previous coursework or to submit to your new institution for a cursory transcript review) or a copy of your official transcript (used when you’ve committed to your new program and are ready to officially transfer your credits).
You might be able to submit a request for your transcript online. Look for the registrar page on your previous school’s website. They may have a ‘transcripts’ tab where you can request a copy of your transcript, or where they’ll detail the request process. There, they’ll also list any information you’ll need in order to submit the request, and how long it should take to fulfill.
Most universities will charge a fee for official transcripts. The cost per transcript will most commonly be in the $5 to $10 range, and, barring any rush or expedited delivery fees, it’s rare that a transcript will cost more than $15 .
If you are unable to find this information on their website, call the registrar’s office directly. You’ll want to be prepared to offer them some identifying information, such as:
Your name (or the name they’re likely to have on file)
Your address or other contact information
What school you attended
The years you attended the institution
Contact information for the university you are transferring to
Once you formally submit your request, be sure to ask how long it will take to fulfill. For official transcripts, digital transfers generally take up to 48 hours, but mailed transfers can take a bit longer.
After the registrar’s stated fulfillment period, contact the admissions office at your new college to confirm they’ve received your academic transcript. They’ll also be able to tell you how long their review process will take and how you can expect to receive the results of their review.
Ask if the admissions office has contact information for the transfer coordinator who will be working on your transfer credits. That way, if you have any questions throughout the process or want to submit a petition for appeal, you’ll have a direct line.
If your goal in transferring your college credits is to minimize time and money spent acquiring your degree, you may be able to maximize your incoming college credits even further by translating real-world experiences into credits.
Credit for work experience: Ask your institution’s admissions office how they assess credit for professional experience. They may have internal placement tests to determine potential credits, or they may accept external assessments, such as the ACE Working Transcript.
Credit for military service: If you served in the military, you may be eligible to request a Joint Services Transcript. Essentially, this document translates military service into terms a college admissions office can easily interpret.
Credit for independent learning: Tests like CLEP exams can demonstrate college-level knowledge, regardless of where you gained that knowledge. Many universities offer credit for passing CLEP exams, and some may even apply those credits toward a degree program. Ask your university’s admissions office about their CLEP exam policies.
The fastest growing age group of degree-seeking students is 25 to 34 years . That means if you’re considering a degree after starting a family, building experience in the workforce, or simply taking some time off school, you’re probably not alone.
If you’re looking to go back to school after completing some college courses, you may be closer to earning your degree than you realize, even if some time has passed since you last entered a classroom.
You may be able to apply many or all of your previously earned credits to a new degree program by seeking a transfer-friendly program, like University of North Texas' Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences. Complete your degree from anywhere with an internet connection with this online program.
1. American Council on Education. "Reimagining Transfer for Student Success, https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Reimagining-Transfer-for-Student-Success.pdf." Accessed June 3, 2022.
2. American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "Student Records Management Practice, https://www.aacrao.org/docs/default-source/research-docs/student-records-management-practice-nbsp---january-60-second-surveycab5ed2c9c694f02b241b39153251a7a.pdf." Accessed June 3, 2022.
3. American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "Official Transcript Types, Cost and Volume, https://www.aacrao.org/docs/default-source/research-docs/aacrao-may-2018-transcript-cost-type-and-volume.pdf." Accessed June 3, 2022.
4. National Center for Education Statistics. "Projections of Education Statistics to 2024, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016013.pdf." Accessed June 3, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.