Do College Credits Expire?

With more and more people going back to college in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and, yes, even 60’s or 70’s, more colleges are being asked to accept credits that were earned years or even decades ago. If you’re looking to complete a college degree and want to transfer some very old credits, the chances are that you will be able to do so – if those credits came from courses that relate to the major you’re planning to pursue at your new school.

To be sure, schools all tend to have their own specific policies on credit transfer. But returning adult learners now represent the largest pool of potential applicants for many colleges. As a result, there’s rising competition among colleges and universities to make it easier for adults to sign up for their degree programs. Favorable credit transfer policies are one of the key tools they use to attract people to completion programs. You’re likely to find that the major online schools, which are particularly focused on older students, are particularly open to taking your old credits in transfer.

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Some Rules That Apply
A look around various forums on the web turns up quite a few students saying that schools have accepted college credits they earned as far back as the 1970’s without any problem. Likewise, a review of our database of schools that accept lots of credit transfers shows that none of their websites make any explicit statement about not accepting older credits.

But you need to be aware that there are basic rules that apply to transferring old credits, whether you got them 30 years ago or six months ago. Some keys to be aware of:

  • “General education” credits in subjects like Math, History, Art and English, which form the foundation of most bachelor’s degrees, tend to be extremely transferrable no matter how old they are.
  • Science credits can have a shorter usable life. Because scientific knowledge is always changing, it is possible that science credits that are older (many schools use a cutoff date of seven to ten years). Likewise, because professional practices in areas like nursing also change dramatically over time, science courses in a specialty like that may not be accepted in transfer if they were earned many years ago.
  • Some schools may only be willing to apply your old credits as “elective” credits in your new degree program. While that may mean you have to study certain subjects again to fulfill core requirements in your major, it may still allow you to reduce your overall credit requirement by at least starting with some of your electives out of the way.
  • Some schools may require you to undergo an evaluation or your knowledge in a particular subject before giving you credit for past study in it. This may include a review of the topics covered (including submission of a syllabus) in the course at your old school or a discussion with you about the course. Alternatively, you may be asked to take a placement test to determine how much you have already learned about a certain topic.
  • If you feel you are transferring into a higher quality school with tougher standards than your old school, you may want to go ahead and re-take select classes in order to bring your skill level up. If you’re going to be studying in a science specialty that requires a lot of math, for example, and you don’t feel confident that your old school did a great job of teaching math, algebra, calculus and trigonometry, you may want to go ahead and re-take a course or courses in this specialty to prepare you to perform well in your new school.
  • It’s always hard to transfer credits from a non-accredited institution. Make sure you know the accreditation status of the school where you took your old credits. Also, you may find that some more traditional campus-based schools are a bit resistant to accepting credits from an online school. This is certainly fading as more state universities and even ivy-league schools offer courses online, but you may need to be prepared to make a very complete case about the quality of your credits at an online school.

You may, in truth, be a little more challenged in getting full credit transfer for courses you took 20 or more years ago. It’s possible that a school may give you less than one-for-one credit transfer on extremely old credits. But you should certainly not go in with an attitude that these credits are worthless.

It’s very important to speak to an academic advisor and perhaps even the head of the department you are planning to study with before actually signing up for a program, so you can draw up the best possible plan to save time and money by transferring as many of your old credits as possible towards your new degree. Here’s more on keys to transferring credits successfully to a new school.