How Long Are College Credits Good For?

Find out how long college credits you may have earned in the past are good for if you're thinking about going back to school.

How Long Are College Credits Good For?
Aayush Khator

It is very common for college students to drop out of school or decide to transfer to another institution. Whether you’re thinking of dropping out or transferring, an important question that often arises is, how long are college credits good for? 

Many people who have dropped out of college in the past decide later on they want to complete their studies. If you want to go back to college and finish your education, or if you’re planning on transferring to another school while you’re still an undergraduate, understanding how long your college credits earned from completed courses are good for is crucial. Colleges and universities have all kinds of different policies on deciding if past course credits are eligible to be carried over to a new institution (or the same institution, if you’re interested in re-enrolling at the same school you already attended). 

Fortunately, recently there has been a general trend of colleges and universities working to make it easier for those wishing to finish their degrees to utilize their old course credits towards their new (or restarted) academic journey. Either way, no matter which college or university you’re interested in, you will usually need to reach a final goal of 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree and 60 credits for an associate degree. 

Read on to find out how long college credits you’ve earned in the past are good for.

Table of Contents

How Long Are College Credits Good For?

Speaking generally, college credits do not expire. If you have taken a college class, completed all the requirements, and received the credits for the course, those credits are typically yours forever. But a different question — can you earn a degree with those credits from so long ago — is more complex. Like so many things when it comes to college, it ultimately is up to whatever new college or university you plan to attend later that decides on the past credits’ validity.

An important step in determining how long college credits are good for is to figure out if your previously earned college credits will apply toward a new degree program. To do this, you’ll need to learn about the transfer credit policies at the college or university you’re choosing to apply to. On the other hand, if you’re planning to return to the college you were previously attending, then you’ll need to learn about their reinstatement and readmission policies.

There’s no universal governing body on the rules of transferring college credits. Generally, colleges have the say in determining whether to count previously earned course credits toward a current degree program. Thus, the only way to find out if your college credits will transfer is to get in contact with your new college directly. Though colleges have the ultimate say over whether your college credits will carry over, there is a good chance that credits you were granted from various types of institutions — community colleges, online programs, four-year universities, for example — can be transferred with the right research on your part.

Key Factors for How Long College Credits Are Good For

While there are no hard and fast rules for how many years are college credits good for, there are some general factors that can help guide you in figuring out if your college credits are still eligible. Below, we go into more detail about these important factors that can help you learn how long are college credits good for.

Recency of Your College Credits

One of the most common criteria for transferring college credits is recency. By recency we mean the length of time that has passed since you earned your college credits. The reason why recency is important is because certain courses can change in content fairly quickly, even if you took the course relatively recently. A good example are courses in fields that evolve fast, like certain sciences or technology courses, which can entail your past college credits may have a shorter shelf life when compared to, say, credits earned in courses like mathematics, English, or history.

Thus, if you’re trying to transfer college credits earned some time ago, those earned in general education courses or humanities classes or foreign language are much more likely to carry over easily between schools, since they tend to not become outdated as rapidly as other courses.

Relevance of the Credits to the Degree You’re Interested In

Another critical factor that will determine how long your college credits are good for and they’re eligible for transfer is how much the credits are related to the degree program you’re interested in applying to. For example, if the classes you completed previously are still relevant to your prospective field of study, or the classes’ credits qualify as core curriculum or general education, then there is a good chance they will probably transfer.

If, however, your past course credits are not relevant to the degree you’re interested in now or do not neatly fit a category at the new institution you’re applying to, your college credits could still count towards elective requirements. So, while you may have to study certain subjects all over again, having past credits go towards elective requirements can still help reduce your overall credit requirements. 

Another common aspect of gauging the relevance of your past college credits is that some colleges may require you to undertake an evaluation of your knowledge in a particular subject before granting you credit for having previously studied in it. The new college you’re interested in might require a review of the topics covered in your past courses, especially by asking for syllabi of past courses taken. Your new college could keep things simpler and merely conduct a discussion with you about the courses you took. Additionally, your new college or university could ask you to take a placement test to figure out how much you’ve already learned about a certain subject before deciding if your past credits can apply.

Accreditation Status of Your Past College

Accreditation status is a too often overlooked factor when it comes to researching colleges to apply to, as well as when it comes to trying to transfer college credits. A college’s accreditation status is determined by both third-party agencies and government organizations on the state and federal level. The purpose of these accreditation agencies is to ensure that college and university programs conform to certain standards of education. If you attended a college in the past that is not an accredited institution, then it might be very difficult indeed to have your past credits carry over to your new college or university. 

But accreditation status isn’t as simple as a college either being accredited or not. Instead, accreditation status can be nationally recognized, or accreditation can be recognized on a regional level. Nationally accredited colleges and universities often accept credits from both regionally and nationally accredited schools. On the other hand, regionally accredited colleges only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions.

The main reason for this difference is that regionally accredited schools are reviewed by a particular regional governing body that assesses a school’s curriculum and ensures it meets the precise academic standards of that governing organization. Therefore, in general, it is usually easier to transfer college credits between regionally accredited schools. 

How Long Are College Credits Good for on the Graduate Level?

When it comes to graduate-level programs, the matter of transferring past course credits is a bit trickier. Like with course credits earned in STEM classes, which can change quickly in the composition of their subject matter, course credits earned towards a graduate degree also have a shorter shelf-life than credits earned in more general, undergraduate fields of study. This is due largely to the fact that graduate-level programs are highly tailored to advancing students towards a specific career path. Because graduate programs and courses are not as broad as undergraduate courses, it can be harder to get graduate course credits transferred to a new institution. 

Still, all of this comes down to the policies of whichever school you’re interested in applying to and enrolling in. So, if you were enrolled in a graduate program in the past and dropped out, your credits may not be completely useless. Just do some research and contact the institution’s admissions office for information on policies of graduate course credit transfers and limitations.

The Bottom Line on How Long Are College Credits Good For

Although policies on how long college credits are good for ultimately depend on the college or university you plan on applying to and attending, the general factors listed above are relevant for all schools. Critical factors like the recency of your college credits, the relevance of the course credits towards what you want to study now, and the accreditation status of the college you attended previously, all play a crucial role in determining if your college credits will carry over.

The good news is that there is no universal, concrete time limit or expiration date on how long college credits are good for. Instead, the transferring of course credits depends on the institution in question and the program you pursued in the past and the one you want to pursue now.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.