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Consider the following situation: a student has started a bachelor's/master's/PhD at a lesser-known university program but feels that he would benefit from a more prestigious institution with better professors, equipment, and learning environment.

He decides to apply for a bachelor's/master's/PhD (the same degree as his previous level) program at top schools, planning to abandon his current program if he is accepted.

Is this unusual or frowned upon? Is the fact that the applicant has already started a program likely to hurt the applicant's chances? (Do the answers to the above questions depend on the current level of the applicant?)

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    How is this different than transferring? This is common in bachelor programs. Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 16:46

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Speaking strictly from the US, this is defined as a being a "transfer student" and is extremely common. How common? Well, it's a federally reported statistic called "Transfer-Out Rate". I am fond of the CollegeResults.org tool, which defines this stat nicely (emphasis mine):

The percentage of students who began in the 2006 cohort of first-time, full-time, bachelor's or equivalent degree-seeking freshmen at the institution and transferred to another school without earning a degree at the initial institution. Reporting of transfer data is optional for colleges and universities that do not consider preparing students for transfer as part of their mission. (IPEDS)

For instance, The University of South Alabama is reported as having about 16% of students transfer out to another institution before receiving a degree. The University at Buffalo (New York) posts about a 20% transfer rate.

So, as the write-up for the statistic suggests, some schools even offer specific degree tracks designed to transfer. In the state of Wisconsin, the entire "technical college" offers such programs. In Florida, these are called "junior colleges" and offer similar tracks.

Even at Universities designed without this as their intent, there is always a percentage of people who transfer in and out at an undergraduate level. As Nate Eldredge points out, this is not nearly so common at higher levels, but it happens often enough and is hardly taboo.

The Upsides

Sometimes it is desirable to plan to transfer, such as getting started at a nearby location while you make preparations/plans to go elsewhere (I did this myself, starting in a tech school and applying to my target University just the next semester once I had family/work preparations in place). Many people spend 2-3 years at such colleges, taking all the classes they can towards their higher target degree (usually called "general degree requirements") - usually because it is more convenient and often vastly cheaper (a person can easily save tens of thousands of dollars in tuition this way). Class sizes are often smaller. The difficulty level of the material varies, but most "introduction" classes look a lot an awful lot alike after a while.

The Downsides

If you are looking to go onto higher degrees, especially to a PhD or competitive Masters program, recommendation letters and research experience (when possible) are highly desirable if not absolutely necessary. If you will only be at an institution for 2 years instead of 4-5, then you have a lot less time to find and build these connections! Surely you can do it, but I know I've personally found it took me about 2 years to find the right connections that seem to have "stuck" and suit me and what I want to do (after figuring out what I actually want to do, naturally). If I had completed most of the degree before coming to my present institution, this might mean I'd have missed out on such opportunities to do some real work with these people.

Most institutions have requirements of "credits done in residence", so you can't just do 4/5ths of a degree at Podunk Clown School Of Higher Learning and transfer into Harvard for a semester and get your diploma. Which is unfortunate, because that sounds like it would make for a great B-movie.

Some administrative complications can come into play too. If you decide to retake a course you did poorly on or failed in a previous semester, the rules about how to do this and whether or not it's possible vary depending on where you took the class. Retaking a class you took originally at School A is not always possible or straight-forward once you are in School B.

How GPA is calculated also differs in this same way, as some institutions only calculate grades earned in residence, others combine them, some don't transfer 0 credit classes (like if you failed a class) and others transfer all grades even if they don't give you credit for the course towards your degree!

The complexity can be a real head-ache sometimes, but they are generally annoyances to be overcome rather than deal-breakers.

Big Warning

Credits earned at one institution aren't automatically accepted anywhere else! Indeed, at some colleges they offer two versions of a class - one that is likely to transfer, and one that isn't; the one that can transfer costs more but is otherwise the same course! This can be a minefield, so if you want to make plans or consider transferring, talk with your target school's Admissions/Registration/Records and whoever would be in charge of a transcript evaluation first!

This process varies hugely by US State and even between institutions within the state (even when they are State schools in the same system!), but suffice it to say that this is an extremely common problem in America and you have to be careful and plan accordingly.

Admissions Considerations

Finally, you asked about how this might effect perceptions of you in terms of admissions or otherwise. The most important thing I've seen is that once you've had a semester or two at any college, most colleges no longer put much weight into your high school grades, SAT scores, etc - if they even require them at all. So it is very common that people will not do great in high school, go to a local or otherwise non-competitive college for a few semesters, get really get good grades, and then apply to more competitive institutions. Most Universities understand that proven experience in a college setting is a far better predictor of academic success than any high school transcript or standardized test can possibly be, and then put little weight into anything they have to say. This can backfire on you, of course, if you didn't do well at your last program but did better in the past.

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  • I answered largely the matter of undergraduate education and how it might effect higher-level degrees, but not at all how it is to transfer between Masters or PhD programs. I know this happens and has pros and cons, but I do not feel qualified to answer as I don't have any direct experience with such situations.
    – BrianH
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 18:28
  • This may or may not be worth including in the answer, but some universities, prestigious ones in particular, don't accept incoming transfer students at all. (I'm not sure offhand if Harvard is one of them.)
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 21:47
  • @David: Googling for "Harvard transfer" shows that they do accept incoming transfers. Princeton, however, does not. Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 4:03
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In the US this is generally known as "transferring".

At the undergraduate level it is very common, and institutions usually have standard procedures for admission, awarding credit for equivalent courses already taken, and so on. Students may transfer for a variety of reasons: to attend a more prestigious place, or to find a program that's a better fit for their interests, or just because they'd rather live in a different city. Transfer applicants are not necessarily advantaged or disadvantaged compared to new freshmen, though the applicant's record at their current institution will be taken into account.

At the graduate level, it is less common, and tends to happen when a student is actively unhappy with their current program. It tends to be handled on a more ad hoc basis and it's hard to say whether such applicants are generally at an advantage or a disadvantage.

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