Forget financial aid. To save college cash, just pick an institution and stay there, say the experts. While some transfer students do save money, especially those who move from a community college to a four-year institution, many wind up losing credits and financial aid dollars in the process. To make sure you’re getting the most out of your college transfer, consider these five ways to cut the cost of changing schools.

Research reciprocation

Unless you’re going from a two-year to a four-year institution, a college transfer is probably going to cost you, says Peter Ratzan, co-founder of the college funding consultation firm College Planning Specialists of Florida, located in Weston, Fla.

“In my experience, students usually lose about one semester in lost credits,” he says. “It could be more. We had a physical therapy student that transferred from the University of North Carolina Asheville to Emory University, but they don’t offer the same kinds of courses at Emory. She lost an entire year’s worth of credits.”

To ensure that your coursework does transfer, Ratzan advises potential transfer students to send their transcripts to the new school before applying for admission. If all credits won’t make the cut, students can investigate whether they can take classes at community and two-year schools at a lower cost.

Investigate graduation rates

Even if your credits transfer, you could still find yourself with an extra bill, especially for students who transfer from a private university to a public institution.

“With budget cuts, a lot of students at state colleges can’t get all the classes they need to complete their majors,” says Andy Lockwood, co-founder of College Planning Specialists of Florida. “It could take longer to graduate even if your credits do transfer over.”

Before signing on the dotted line, Lockwood encourages students to ask about the college’s average graduation rate and to have an admissions counselor plot out how they can graduate within four years with their current credit load.

Figure the financial aid

After checking out course transfers, investigate financial aid packages. Generally, a student’s financial aid package is based not only on the student’s financial need, but also on the cost of their current college and how much the school doles out in private scholarships and grants. So a generous aid award at one school doesn’t necessarily mean an equally generous one elsewhere. Cheaper schools sometimes cost more in the end simply because they can’t offer the same financial aid awards as pricier colleges.

“I encourage all students to ask each college, ‘What will my total cost of attendance be?'” says Tyler Peterson, director of recruitment for Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala. “Financial aid offices should be able to give a good faith estimate of what the costs will be for next year.”

If a school is unable to give a financial aid award estimate, transfer students can ballpark their own financial aid award by researching what percentage of financial need the school meets on average, then comparing that figure to their own expected family contribution level found on the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Perfect your timing

Students determined to do a college transfer can save cash simply by applying at the right time. While some schools allow students to transfer at any point in their college tenure, others mandate that students complete one to two years’ worth of credits at their home institution before making the switch while still others require transfer students to sign on for a certain number of credits at the new institution.

“Let’s say a student completes 2.5 years at an institution, but when they go to transfer, it’s required that they do another 60 credits at the new institution. That’s 15 credits lost,” says Jane Dessoye, executive director of enrollment management at Misericordia University in Dallas, Penn. “That means a student isn’t just incurring another year of fees and tuition and room and board, but that’s another year that they aren’t in the workforce.”

To avoid forking over money for a semester you don’t need, just do your research, adds Dessoye. Students who are well-versed in their new school’s transfer policies lose fewer credits than those who aren’t.

Find the right fit

All the research in the world won’t matter if the new institution isn’t a good fit, socially and academically.

“I can’t count the number of times a student has come to us admitting that they went to an institution where they weren’t happy and because of that, they weren’t able to concentrate on their studies,” says Dessoye. “If they’re committed to transferring, they need to make absolutely sure it’s into an institution where they will be content.”

Financially orchestrating one transfer is tricky, but finagling two within four years is almost guaranteed to cost you at least one semester’s worth of credits. Before enrolling in a new institution, Dessoye encourages students to take a tour, meet with faculty advisers and plan an overnight stay if they can.

“Sit in on classes, experience some social things, eat the college food,” she says. “To make a transfer worthwhile, it’s crucial that you can say, ‘Yes, this is where I could be happy.'”

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