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An Introduction to Guaranteed Transfer Programs

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When you think about the typical college experience, you probably imagine a student staying at one school for all four years. While this is certainly what many students do, it’s far from the only option.


Every year, thousands of students enter the transfer admissions process, hoping to move from one college to another that they believe is a better fit for them. Many more seek to transfer from community colleges, which typically only offer two years of instruction, into four-year colleges, where they can finish their education and receive a bachelor’s degree.


While transferring is a compelling option for many, the transfer admissions process can be just as intimidating as the first-year college admission process, and it’s fair to say that very few students want to go through that a second time. Guaranteed transfer programs, which provide a predetermined and potentially smoother path toward transferring, can help to alleviate this stress.


Read on for more information about guaranteed transfer programs, including the types of programs you’ll find, what they require, and how to decide whether one of these programs is a good option for you.


What is a guaranteed transfer program?

Applying directly to four-year colleges when you’re a senior in high school isn’t the only path to a bachelor’s degree. For some students, attending a community college for a period of time and then applying to their desired four-year college as a transfer student is an approach that makes a lot of sense.


However, the transfer application process poses a number of challenges. Like the traditional application process, it requires a substantial investment in terms of time and effort to gather materials, fill out applications, write essays, and make sure all the requirements are met, and this can be quite stressful.


A few top colleges don’t accept transfer applicants at all, and at those that do, the process is often competitive — occasionally even more so than for first-year applicants. There’s no certainty that you’ll end up being able to attend the college of your choice.


This is where guaranteed transfer programs come in. In general, if you enroll in one of these programs, you’ll spend the first two years of your college career at a community college. (As we’ll discuss below, Cornell University and a few other schools have guaranteed transfer programs that follow a different model, but these schools are considerably in the minority.)


After attending community college, assuming satisfactory academic performance on your part and the completion of all the requirements for your program, you’ll be able to transfer to a particular four-year college to finish your bachelor’s degree.


Guaranteed transfer programs vary in what they ask of you. Generally, you’ll have to maintain a certain GPA, take a certain range of courses, and fulfill other academic requirements in order to transfer. The “guaranteed” nature of the program only applies if you successfully follow that program’s instructions, so the onus is still on you to keep up your performance.


What are the benefits of a guaranteed transfer program?

We’ve covered the potential benefits of attending community college in our previous post Should I Go To a Community College? A guaranteed transfer program that involves attending community college will allow you to access all these benefits, such as monetary savings, convenient location, and the chance to improve your academic record.


The major additional benefit of a guaranteed transfer program is that it allows you to reap the rewards of attending a community college without enduring the uncertainty of the transfer admission process. Being assured a place at a four-year college to finish your bachelor’s degree can remove a major weight from your shoulders as you work on making the most of your first two years.


What if you later decide that you don’t want to attend the four-year college(s) stipulated in your guaranteed transfer program? Typically, you’re free to apply to other four-year colleges as a transfer if you choose to do so — you’re not locked in.


However, you’ll have to be mindful of the transfer policies of these four-year colleges; each school has slightly different rules about who can apply to transfer and when. Of course, if you decide to pursue other transfer applications, you’ll have to deal with the added workload and uncertainty of the application process.


Guaranteed transfer programs also have some potential benefits for the four-year colleges involved. On a practical level, even the most coveted and selective colleges will lose some students from each matriculating class as time goes on; some students may take time off, while others may leave for good. Accepting transfer students allows colleges to fill these vacant slots in the class and recoup their losses.


When the right student is involved, a guaranteed transfer program can be beneficial both to the student and to the college to which they end up transferring. Not only does the student get a second chance, the college also gets another opportunity to bring in a talented student who may be a major asset to the campus.


What does a typical guaranteed transfer program look like?

Here are a few particularly well-known and well-regarded guaranteed transfer programs that follow this model. While many more of these programs exist, and each is different, these examples will help you to understand how the process works more generally.


The University of California (UC) System

The UC guaranteed transfer program, TAG, provides a pathway for students enrolled at community colleges in California to finish their bachelor’s degrees at certain colleges in the UC system. Since the UC schools are generally quite well-regarded, this is among the better-known guaranteed transfer programs in the country. (Check out our Ultimate Guide to Applying to the University of California for more information on its schools.)


Once they’ve finished two years at a California community college, students in this program are eligible to apply to transfer to one of the following UC locations: Davis, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, Santa Barbara, or Santa Cruz. (Notably, UCLA and UC Berkeley, which are especially well-known, do not participate in the guaranteed transfer program.)


Each participating branch of the UC system has slightly different standards and procedures for potential transfers, as you can see from the 2017-2018 UC TAG matrix, a document listing all requirements for all participating UC schools. These requirements touch upon factors including GPA, number of credits accrued, completion of certain courses, and sometimes, requirements that are specific to your major.


Students interested in the TAG program can apply for approval during the fall of their second year at a California community college and, if approved, can then apply to the participating UC school of their choice. If you meet all the requirements for the TAG program at the participating UC school you want to attend, your acceptance is guaranteed — with two potential caveats.


One, depending on the school, you may not be guaranteed placement in your preferred major, and certain majors may not be available to you. Two, your acceptance may be contingent upon you completing certain courses and requirements prior to actually transferring, as spelled out in the “TAG agreement” you’ll receive upon being approved. If you successfully complete everything listed in your TAG agreement, however, you’re in!


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Other Notable Guaranteed Transfer Programs

The UC TAG program is just one example of the most common form of guaranteed transfer program — the type in which satisfactory progress at a community college can earn you admission to a four-year college.


Here are a few other examples of four-year colleges that offer similar guaranteed transfer programs:


  • The State University of New York system (selected campuses)
  • The University of Connecticut
  • The University of Massachusetts at Amherst


This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many other colleges, especially public university systems, have guaranteed transfer agreements with certain community colleges, usually those within the same state or city.


As always, every college (and every guaranteed transfer program) has its own procedures and requirements, so it’s very important to thoroughly research each individual program before you make any definite plans to attend. Remember, the “guarantee” these colleges offer only holds if you meet certain criteria that are specific to that school.


Variations on the Guaranteed Transfer Model

At some community colleges, you may find much more specific guaranteed transfer programs in particular academic and pre-professional fields. For instance, the University of Virginia offers a guaranteed transfer program in nursing. Students who attend Virginia’s community colleges, meet a range of field-specific requirements, and pass the exam to become Registered Nurses are guaranteed admission to UVA’s Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing program.


Similarly, certain four-year colleges, especially large state universities, may include several undergraduate colleges under the larger umbrella of that university. Undergraduate programs like engineering, fine arts, or business may (or may not) be located in their own separate colleges — it depends upon the school.


These different undergraduate programs may have very different admissions procedures and requirements. Just because a guaranteed transfer program applies to one college within a university doesn’t mean that it will apply to all of them, so doing your research is essential to making sure that you’ll be able to transfer into the right program for you.


A Different Take: Cornell University’s Transfer Option

Guaranteed transfer programs like that of the UC system, which specifically offer a pathway from community college to a four-year university, are the type of guaranteed transfer programs you’re most likely to encounter. However, there’s another major variation that you should know about, which is most famously represented at Cornell University.


If you apply to Cornell and are rejected, shortly afterwards, you may also receive what Cornell calls a “transfer option letter.” Cornell decides who receives these letters based on their standard first-year applications — you don’t have to do anything special to be considered. You also don’t have to do anything to officially accept this option — it’s simply available to you if you choose to use it later on.


If you receive a transfer option letter, you’ll commit to and enroll at another accredited college or university as a first-year. During that first year of college, you’ll then be given the chance to apply again to Cornell as a second-year transfer using a special application provided only to those who were “transfer optioned.” (You can choose not to reapply if you find that you’re happy where you ended up.)


Like other guaranteed transfer programs, Cornell’s comes with certain requirements, and students who are offered and hope to use the transfer option will have to make sure to maintain a high level of academic performance during their first year of college. Among other criteria, Cornell typically expects that you’ll maintain a college GPA of at least 3.3.


It’s important to note that Cornell’s program does not officially guarantee that you’ll be accepted as a transfer at the school. Applicants who are transfer optioned, fulfill all the requirements in their first year of college elsewhere, and choose to reapply to Cornell as transfers are most often accepted. However, this is not set in stone, so you’ll still need to have a backup plan.


A few other colleges have enacted transfer option programs that are similar to Cornell’s, including Boston University (BU). Selected students are guaranteed admission to BU as transfers upon successful completion of their first year of college somewhere else. They aren’t required to reapply, but as usual, they need to fulfill particular academic requirements.


Is a guaranteed transfer program right for me?

A college plan that involves attending community college isn’t for every student, nor is a college plan that involves planning to transfer part of the way through. However, under certain circumstances, pursuing a guaranteed transfer program can be an excellent way to create a path to a bachelor’s degree that works for your needs.


Below, you’ll find a brief list of questions you’ll need to consider when deciding whether a guaranteed transfer program could be a good fit to your educational goals:


  • Learn more about the potential pros and cons of attending community college. Check out our post Should I Go To A Community College? for more general advice on this topic. Guaranteed transfer programs offer especially significant benefits to students who might have attended community college regardless of the guarantee.
  • Consider the specific details of each program. As we mentioned, every guaranteed transfer program is a little different. The “guarantee” of admission only applies to students who meet certain requirements, which vary from school to school.
  • Compare costs. A guaranteed transfer program will often save you money due to the lower cost of community college for those first two years, but receiving an especially large financial aid award at a four-year school could tip the balance.
  • Decide whether you especially value having a traditional first-year college experience. Living in a dorm, eating in the dining hall, bonding with fellow first-years, and embracing on-campus activities are parts of the typical experience that might not apply if you start out at a community college.
  • Think about your larger educational and career goals and whether a given program will match your needs. Are you already sure what field you want to pursue? Perhaps a targeted, field-specific guaranteed transfer program would work well for you. Are you worried that the quality of resources at a particular community college won’t allow to you really flourish? Maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.


The best advice we at CollegeVine can give is to gather as much information as you can. Do your research, ask your guidance counselors for advice, and discuss the process with your family. Don’t forget to gather information about yourself as well by thoughtfully considering your interests, goals, and personal needs, just as you would when contemplating any other college.


As we’ve said, the guaranteed transfer path is not for everyone — but then again, no path is. If you’re well-informed, sure of your goals, and ready to take on the challenge of meeting all the requirements, enrolling in a guaranteed transfer program can be a great way to shape your education in a way that works for you.


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.