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.


  1. Elizabeth Hennessey says:

    I took Health Information Management classes through AHIMA while waiting to be accepted into a program (most schools only accept 30 students each term in the HIM program) and have found now that most schools will not accept AHIMA class credits, even though AHIMA is who set the standards and tests for the credential. I’m so discouraged – I certainly don’t have time/money to take those classes all over again.

  2. painter33 says:

    Most colleges and universities recognize that credits have finite, useful life. Generally, credits beyond fifteen years are treated as though they were never awarded or earned. Degrees last forever, but random credits, those floating around and not yet applied to a degree, are not there to be used at any time in the future. Their value atrophies are the years pass. Changes to curricula, credit structure, course content, grading practices, and other factors are cited as justifications. Information retention is another drawback to length of time away – courses that are prerequisites for more advanced courses rely on recent, relevant information. If a student can’t bring the more recent content to current and more advanced courses, she/he cannot fully comprehend the material or participate in the classes or peer learning (except to take and not give); therefore, taking advantage of the course content is almost ruled out. A for-profit cares less about learning relative to income than a nonprofit institutions for business reasons. They are bottom line driven. Any income is better than none, so old credits are more likely to be accepted at for-profits. Students interested in getting a degree but not so interested in getting an education depresses the quality of courses. When learning is treated as a by-product instead of a goal, whatever results, a degree or certificate, is meaningless. The same general policies apply to “life credits”, credits awarded for breathing, as also treated differently by the for- and nonprofit sectors. Instead of starting anew at the beginning and receiving the benefit of a contemporary curriculum addressed in a continuous and consistent way, some folks just want something on paper to portray them as holders of degrees (and allegedly due a higher salary). In fact, degrees are not an accumulation of credits or courses, per se, but they are the result of a series of carefully crafted, degree/curricula-satisfying courses that culminate in a profound difference in a person between the initial enrollment and graduation. In most colleges and universities, faculty controls the curricula, not the students. When outdated credits are applied, that curricular expertise of the faculty is thrown out and replaced by unprofessional expediency. It is a loss of academic freedom and that’s why most schools will not insult its faculty and foist upon it unprepared and ill-prepared students whose learning capabilities are somewhat doubtful.

    I know this might be a difficult pill for some to swallow, but expecting institutions to toss away their integrity demeans the schools and their current and relatively recent students. Someone who holds a true desire to learn will make the sacrifice of beginning at the beginning to maximize the educational opportunities offered and will be better for it. There is no downside to learning, and learning should be a lifelong practice. Higher education, whether taken for four or fourteen years, is but the beginning of the learning process – “learning how to learn” is the most one can expect from a baccalaureate degree. A BA/BS is not the end of anything nor can it be as much as one needs to know; it’s just the start. For some people, the for-profit direction is the more appropriate path based on their end desires. That’s not a value judgment, just a suggestion of what gets one to a desired place more efficiently.

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