Transferring to an Online School How to Ensure High School & College Students Get All the Credit They Deserve

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Patti Greenberg Founder, Greenways Academy Read bio

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Jeff Benson Read bio

Transferring to an online high school or college may seem confusing, but it’s fairly straightforward if you do your research ahead of time. This guide explores why a student might want to transfer to an online high school, important factors to consider when choosing a school, and the typical required steps for transferring. If you’re considering an online high school or college, learn more about what you’ll need to do to find the right school and to ensure all your credits transfer smoothly.

When an Online High School Might Be the Better Option

High school is a social milestone that many people remember fondly. Yet traditional schools don’t always serve the diverse academic and social needs of individual students. There are several types of students who might benefit more from an online education:

  • Students with unique learning styles

    “I feel like somebody chooses online learning because the brick and mortar model has not worked well for them or it isn’t currently serving them well,” says Patti Greenberg, founder of Greenways Academy, an alternative school based in St. Louis. She goes on to say that some students’ learning styles just don’t mesh with traditional classrooms. These students may benefit more from online classes, which offer alternative ways of interacting with course materials, teachers and other students.

  • Motivated learners

    “My personal feeling is that if a student is motivated and wants to learn and they have a facilitator to help them, they’ll be a great candidate for online learning,” says Greenberg. Students must be motivated because the asynchronous instructional style (in which students don’t have a set time period to access coursework and finish it) puts them in full control of what and when the they learn.

  • Advanced students or students who want to graduate faster

    A traditional high school day ends around 3pm. Many online high schools, on the other hand, operate 24/7. That means students can learn at a faster pace and graduate early. (Keep in mind, though, that some districts allow traditional students to supplement campus-based courses with online classes, meaning students don’t necessarily have to choose one format over the other.)

  • Students with the right support systems

    Greenberg is a big believer in facilitators to help hold online high school students accountable for completing their work. “A facilitator can be anybody from a teacher to a tutor to a mentor to somebody they check in with three times a week to make sure they’re moving along at a decent pace.”

  • Rural teens

    Sometimes the local high school doesn’t have a lot to offer. There might not be Advanced Placement classes available or a certain subject may not be offered because the school is understaffed. For rural teens, an online high school offers convenience and may even give them access to more resources and class options. If a student doesn’t have access to a class they want or need at the school they’re attending, they may be able to find that class online through a different high school. Online programs can also save rural families time and money by eliminating the commute to/from school.

  • Working students

    Some high school students have to work to help support their families, and most of the time, these hours conflict with traditional school hours. Online high school allows students to continue working without having to sacrifice their education.

  • Extracurricular participants

    Most students’ extracurricular activities are school-based, but some young people get involved with activities that aren’t school-related, such as church, a community center or a particular sport or hobby. These students can take advantage of the flexible scheduling many online courses offer.

  • Students with health problems

    It’s difficult for students to stay on track if medical problems are constantly derailing them. In cases like these, studying online has two potential benefits – it allows students to complete work when they are able to (as long deadlines are met), and students with weakened immune systems or severe allergies can avoid being exposed to health risks.

  • Bullying victims

    School should be a safe place. Unfortunately, for some students a traditional campus just isn’t, which makes it hard to concentrate on learning. Online high schools allow students to learn in a comfortable environment.

  • Students who have moved

    A mid-year move can be tough on kids. Not only is there pressure to make new friends and adapt to a new community, but they also have all new classes and teachers midstream. Finishing out the year online at their current school can help mitigate some of the social anxiety that can come with a big move.

How to Transfer to an Online High School

Transferring to an online high school from a traditional high school is easy, provided you’re coming from an accredited school. While the process differs from school to school, the basic steps are as follows:

Students should do their best to avoid leaving a school mid-year. Otherwise they risk losing credit for classes already taken or may have to jump through hoops to be able to continue their existing courses online. Set the end of your current term as a deadline for completing the remaining steps.

Depending on where they live, students might have multiple online high school options. Some of which may be free, but others might not be. When researching options, ask questions such as: What’s the curriculum like? Are there Advanced Placement courses? What kind of credentials and experience do the teachers have? (See the section “Important Things to Look for in an Online School” for guidance.) One of the most important things to consider: If the school isn’t accredited, look elsewhere. Accreditation means the school has been vetted and meets basic educational standards.

When you contact the school, Greenberg recommends having an unofficial transcript in hand to expedite the transfer process. “Whenever we get a student that wants to come to our school, the first thing we usually ask for is an unofficial transcript so that we can gauge what classes they should be taking to earn a diploma,” she says.

Each school has its own system for determining which credits to accept and what courses the student will still need to take in order to graduate. The online school may not accept all previously earned credit, but credit should transfer more easily if you’re coming from an accredited school. “For a homeschooler transferring to an online school, it’s super hard to have a set guideline. If they’re coming from an accredited institution, then it’s easy for me to accept credits that way,” says Greenberg. “Religious schools are a sticking point, too. If a student is transferring from a religious institution and has taken Bible, they want that credit. But we’re a secular institution so do not issue that credit.”

Required paperwork may differ from school to school so it’s important to talk to an administrator to find out what needs to be submitted. The most important piece of paperwork is usually the official transcript. Since you may be enrolling while still taking classes at your old school, make sure your latest grades are sent to the online school for review. In addition to official transcripts, students will likely have to submit birth certificates, immunization records and proof of residence. And don’t forget the application form itself.

Transferring Credits to an Online College

Transferring credits to an online college is a little different from transferring credits between high schools. Here’s what college students should know:

  • Colleges set their own policies for accepting college credits earned during high school. Many accept Advanced Placement (AP) test scores and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) scores. A student with a high enough mark on the exam would receive college credit as though he or she had taken the course there. Dual enrollment – enrolling in an online college course while still in high school – is another option, and typically transfers easily if the college is accredited (it’s even easier if it’s going to the same college that offered the course). Greenways Academy, for instance, offers a dual enrollment program with a university.

  • The starting point for a transfer is still your transcripts – including high school transcripts if you earned dual credit. From there, you can access college websites and start digging for credit transfer equivalency tools. If a school rejects a class, ask them to reconsider. Use any syllabi you have kept as evidence that the course requirements are similar.

  • It’s common for colleges to cap the number of credits earned outside their institution, regardless of whether the credits were earned during high school, community college or elsewhere. Expect to take at least the last year of classes at your new online college in order to earn your degree.

  • Some courses or test scores can expire, making them harder or impossible to transfer.

  • Not all credit transfers are equal. For example, an introductory government course may transfer as an elective, rather than as credit toward a political science degree.

  • Schools often use articulation agreements to outline which classes will transfer and how. If the online college you are transferring to has an articulation agreement with the high school you are transferring from, things should go smoothly. This can save you time and money by ensuring you don’t lose any credits.

Important Things to Look for in an Online School

Not all online high schools and colleges are created equal. How do you make sure you’re choosing a quality institution? Below are checklist items to keep an eye out for:

Accreditation

Accreditation means a school has been assessed to meet a certain standard of quality. But that’s not the only reason it’s important. Most schools – high school and college – only accept credits from other accredited institutions. Therefore, attending an unaccredited high school can jeopardize your chances of admission to college. To check that your school is accredited, start by visiting AdvancED, the largest accrediting agency for high schools.

Balanced curriculum

Look for challenging courses and more than just an eclectic set of electives. The curriculum should balance core courses, interesting electives and advanced options to challenge students. Greenberg suggests asking to demo the curriculum, either with a username and password from the school or via YouTube. “I think it’s very important for students to look at the class and see if it’s a good fit,” says Greenberg.

Simple credit transfer policies

Often, students transfer to online schools within their same state. If you’re going from a public school to another public school, this process should be painless. In the case of out-of-state transfers or transfers involving private schools, credit evaluations may take longer, but it should be sorted within a month, provided students promptly send all the required documents.

Engaged parents

This one isn’t about the school, but the setting. One of the advantages of going to high school on campus is that parental involvement is not required – the teachers and administrators have the student in their care. Not so with online learning, where parents often play an oversight role. Without a parent at home to monitor studies, students may have trouble developing the discipline to succeed on their own. And ideally parents aren’t just present, they’re engaged. Greenberg recommends parents hire or invest in somebody to help their child through the course.

Full-time certified teachers

Typically, teacher certification goes hand in hand with accreditation. Yet it can also be helpful to find out how many teachers are full time employees versus semester-long contractors. High staff turnover may suggest that the quality of instruction is inconsistent from year to year.

Real life activities

One big downside of virtual high schools is that they can exacerbate social isolation and reduce opportunities for experiential learning. But they don’t have to. Some schools, such as Denver Online High School, organize monthly field trips for service learning, experiments and fun. Students can meet their classmates, get out of the house and learn something new.

Greenways Academy also builds outside activities into the curriculum. Greenberg explains: “A full-time kid at Greenways takes their core classes online. So, they have four core classes. And then for their elective credits, we want them to be doing something outside in the community. So they get work-study credit if they have a job. If they are in to a sport, then they get credit for doing that activity. For volunteering, for doing mission work… It’s really important to build a life outside of online learning.”

Office hours

Greenberg says prospective students and parents should ask about the teachers’ office hours. “Find out whether teachers are committed enough to set aside an hour a day or two hours a week to devote to their online students,” she says. Greenberg also suggests students look for schools where teachers clearly demonstrate that they’re invested in their students’ success and aren’t just there to grade the work and collect their pay.

Parent and student satisfaction

Since most families send their kids to their neighborhood public high school by default, online high schools have to work harder to attract students. Ask prospective schools if they’ve conducted any surveys on student or teacher satisfaction. If possible, reach out to other students and/or parents for insight into the school’s pros and cons. Greenberg says that Greenways conducts student surveys after each course and makes the compiled data easily accessible.

Technical support

Greenberg says parents should be asking: “Is the online platform available 24/7? When do they do technical support? If I am having technical issues, who do I talk to?’” Students don’t want to be derailed by a buggy website or course management system. Just because the program is online doesn’t mean students shouldn’t be able to access a real person for help when they need it.

Accreditation

Accreditation is an even bigger deal for colleges than for high schools. Without it, other colleges likely won’t recognize your credits and potential employers won’t value your degree. Complicating matters, there are different types of accreditation. Colleges with regional accreditation often won’t accept credits earned at nationally accredited colleges. Programmatic accreditation can indicate that the school has an established program. Check for institutional accreditation at the U.S. Department of Education’s database.

Counseling and support

Although students’ main point of contact with the college is typically via professors, they can benefit from accessing other support staff as well. Online schools should all have academic counselors, tutors and career services staff to provide guidance. Find out how to access these support staff and what hours they are available. If they are hard to get a hold of, they will be of little help to students. Talk with the financial aid counselors. If they are overly aggressive, it may be a sign that it’s a for-profit college that’s more concerned with getting people in the door than getting them degrees.

Credit transferability

Just because the school is accredited doesn’t mean all your credits will transfer. Public colleges within the same state often have transfer agreements, especially if they’re in the same system. Transfers to colleges based in another state or between private institutions are harder to generalize. The only way to find out is by asking, though some college websites have online tools that give a rough indication of what will transfer.

Student success statistics

When searching for colleges, let the numbers paint a picture. Two key statistics to look at are graduation rates and loan default rates. Graduation rates show the number of students who achieved what they set out to do: earn a degree. Student loan defaults give you an indication of how many students were able to get good-paying jobs to pay back their college debt. Use the Department of Education’s College Scorecard tool to compare figures. Keep in mind that these stats lump together a school’s on-campus and online offerings. For more detailed information about the online program, talk to the college’s admissions office.

FAQs

  • Can I start online school anytime?

    It really depends on the school. Online colleges often offer multiple start dates (somewhere in the range of two to 12) throughout the year, and students can begin on any of those dates. Other courses are self-paced and allow students to begin anytime. Many online high schools also use rolling admissions and/or run short terms that allow students to jump in without much lag time. For instance, Primavera Online High School in Arizona uses a seven-term schedule, while Stanford Online High School in California has standard semesters in the fall and spring. If you’re unsure, an administrator can help you figure out start dates.

  • How is an online school different from a traditional school?

    Online schools offer flexible schedules, which often means the classes are asynchronous or self-paced. Asynchronous means that students don’t have to be online at a specific time, but instead have a set amount of time (for example, a week) to access lectures and complete assignments. Self-paced learning offers maximum flexibility, with students completing tasks in their own time over an entire term; this means they could finish in a week if they worked diligently enough or they could take the entire year, if needed.

  • How is an online school similar to a traditional school?

    Just like traditional school, online school is all about learning. Students still participate in classes and are assessed via exams, essays and homework. They’ll use textbooks and may form study groups with other online students, who they can interact with via their school’s online platform.

  • If I don’t finish the work, can I get an extension?

    Just like traditional high school, you have to do the work. But many schools try to accommodate students facing difficult circumstances. Greenberg notes that Greenways’ policy is: “If the student is going through medical trauma or a crisis, by all means, take a break. We’ll freeze their curriculum, and then they can pick it back up. If the student is dragging their feet and their license expires, then they have to pay again. We will still keep the work they’ve done, but they have to re-enroll.”

  • How do online schools know students aren’t cheating?

    “We don’t have cameras or anything like that,” says Greenberg. “We use the honor code, but we also know that if a student has been taking the class, they’ve been communicating with the teacher. So, if all of a sudden, we see a different type of style or language when answering questions, it’s a red flag for us that maybe it might not be that student doing the work.”

  • Can I take just one or two classes at an online high school while still attending my current high school?

    Yes, most schools allow students to enroll in individual online courses.

  • Is there a fee to attend an online high school?

    Private high schools and high schools connected to universities typically charge tuition. Public online high schools are usually free for state residents, although families must provide internet access and school supplies. Online schools may also charge tuition to students who are enrolled as full-time students at a traditional public high school, but want to take some online courses.

  • I currently attend a traditional high school. Will all my classes transfer if I switch to an online high school?

    Students transferring from a traditional public school to an online public school within the same state will probably be able to transfer most, if not all, of their classes. However, with the growth of traditional and online charter schools, even curricula within the same state are becoming more diverse. The only way to find out for sure is to send your transcripts to a prospective school for review.

  • Can I transfer from a traditional public high school to an online private high school?

    Yes. The steps are essentially the same, but each private high school will have its own method of evaluating transfer credits. Religiously affiliated high schools, in particular, may have special course requirements that incoming students will have to catch up on.

  • Do college-level courses from an online high school transfer to college?

    Usually. Most colleges, for instance, accept credits earned after scoring a 4 or a 5 on an Advanced Placement exam (regardless of whether the student took the preparatory course). Additionally, some online high schools, such as Stanford Online High School, are affiliated with colleges and universities. The college-level courses you take at such schools will at least transfer to that same college. But, again, colleges have full discretion over the credits they accept.

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