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What Does Course Level Mean for Transferring College Credit?

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Can higher course levels make it easier to transfer college credits? We'll explore what course levels mean, how schools number their courses, and whether policies have an impact on you when you're ready to move on.

Do College Credits Always Transfer?

Many students take college courses with the assumption that higher course numbers mean a guaranteed transfer later. That may be true, or it may mean a lot of extra work for nothing. Can you determine which classes are likely to transfer just by course number, so you don't waste a lot of time and money on classes you don't need? The answer to that question is complex and could depend on how your current school assigns course numbers, how your transfer school views those designations, and your final grades in those classes.

What Do Course Numbers Mean?

When you view a college catalog, you'll notice that courses have designations like MATH 093, CHEM 110, HIST 215, etc. While the reason for these designations can vary from school to school, they should give applicants an idea of the complexity of the material offered. In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dr. Kelly S. Meier explained class level simply: In general, lower numbers mean lower levels of learning and fewer prerequisites. They can also mean more competition for class space, particularly if you are just getting started.

At colleges like the City University of New York (CUNY), courses with numbers less than 100 are considered remedial. These classes are designed to help students improve their skills so they can do well with higher-level coursework. Classes with designations below 100 may or may not count toward a degree program and almost never transfer.

In some cases, such as when a course has been discontinued, new classes are given higher designations for purely administrative purposes. Matt Lutze, an undergrad at Michigan Tech, explains that nicely in his Quora response to that question.

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Who Are Courses Open To?

Class availability varies among institutions. In many schools, like the University of Washington, lower-level classes are generally open to all students. Classes designated in the 100s tend to be freshman-level courses, while 200-level courses might suit sophomores and well-qualified freshmen.

Classes at the 300 and 400 levels should meet the educational needs of college juniors, seniors, and some graduate-level students. Upper-division courses mean extensive preparation on the part of the student and significant understanding of the subject matter. There is also an expectation that students will be able to work cooperatively.

Courses at the 500 level and above may follow a school's graduate program and require a deep understanding of the course material. Students in these classes are expected to work independently and have a greater drive.

Which Credits are Transferable?

The credits you can take with you vary among institutions. Lower-level classes may transfer as university-level credit in some cases. If a course is viewed as too broad or without enough structure, the receiving university may disallow it. If accepted, it may only be as an elective credit, leaving the student to make up the course at the transfer school.

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Higher-level courses, like those in the 200 and 300 ranges, may be easier to transfer. Many universities view these as being more focused and more in line with their own quality of educational offerings. To help determine if courses will transfer, many schools, like Union College, offer handy online guides. Students can use these to look for equivalencies between programs before they begin the transfer process, allowing them to gauge acceptance and prepare for a possible credit challenge if needed.

Classes in the 400-500 range may be available to undergraduate students or offered exclusively to graduate students. These courses may transfer into another university program if they meet certain criteria set by a school.

Graduate-level courses are often designed specifically for a university's program and may not transfer at all. For students thinking of moving between graduate programs, many schools offer online resources to help them understand the necessary requirements. Checking a school's website for information, such as that supplied by the University of North Carolina, can help students determine whether they will be able to take their credits with them, or if they will need to begin again.

Seek Guidance

Because the confusion regarding course levels can cause a gap in perceived quality, some universities refuse to honor lower-level coursework at all without extensive proof of its value. In some cases, transferring even upper-level credits can be a challenge.

Every source we spoke to offered us the same advice when asked how to tell which classes would transfer: Call ahead. Because there can be such a broad range in the way schools number courses, there is no way of knowing which will transfer just by looking at a school's catalog.

If you're considering transferring from a community college to a university, or even from one university to another, get help. Take advantage of online tools, like those from My College Guide, and meet with a counselor to see if you can expect credit for the classes you've taken. Assuming that a class in the mid-to-upper levels will receive consideration just because it is a more complex one could leave you out in the cold.

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By Patricia Willis
November 2016
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