Discover Your Strategies > The Rules for Independent Students

Students applying to college today will discover that the admissions process is undergoing rapid change. Colleges are creating new student admission categories with different acceptance requirements to accommodate students with diverse educational backgrounds. Adding to the educational need for change is the increased competition between campuses as they strive to increase enrollment. This is opening exciting new academic opportunities for today’s student.

There are still “select” colleges and universities with such strong reputations that they receive more student applications than they plan to enroll. These colleges have little incentive to implement change. However, this level of discernment is only enjoyed by a small percentage of colleges. The majority of colleges want to find creative new ways to increase enrollment and they realize that one of their best business strategies is to become more accommodating to students looking for flexibility and cost savings.

Most students who begin the process of applying to colleges are only familiar with the Entering Freshman category and therefore look for ways to make themselves more attractive using the common admissions standards of grades and test scores. Colleges today however, have been creating new admission classifications to accommodate students looking for a non-traditional path and the standards for admissions have changed accordingly. In addition to the traditional Entering Freshman status, some of the new categories are:

  • Entering Freshman
  • Non-Degree Seeking Student
  • Transfer Student
  • Dual Enrolled Student
  • Homeschooled Student
  • Ability to Benefit
  • Open Enrollment
  • No Enrollment
  • Community College Enrollment

These new classifications are giving students the opportunity to take college courses at a younger age, choose courses from a variety of institutions and select from courses that fit their financial and educational goals. Most importantly however, they are allowing students to accumulate credits using a host of options independent of the college where they plan to graduate. It is these changes that are opening the college doors to students of all educational backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances.

Not every college has embraced these changes yet, but thousands already have. Resourceful students will find an individualized path to achieve a fully-accredited degree in whatever field they wish. Although admissions categories and criteria are different at every college, here is a brief overview of the broad groupings.

Entering Freshman

Prospective freshmen are normally Degree-Seeking Students who have accumulated little, if any, college credit. The admissions criteria for Entering Freshman are quite universal among traditional colleges, and high schools try to prepare college bound students to meet these common standards. Every college will have different thresholds for acceptability, but the following admissions categories are very common:

  • Official High School Transcript or GED
  • High School Class Rank
  • High School Grade Point Average
  • ACT or SAT Score
  • Essays
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Community Service
  • Personal Interview

Interested students fill out college applications and pay the application fees. Students then submit official transcripts and other documents necessary to complete the enrollment. Colleges review the information and notify students at a later date.

Non-Degree Seeking Student

Students now have the opportunity to take college courses without a complicated admissions process. More and more colleges are accepting students who are not intending, at least at the time, to pursue a degree from that institution. Instead, these students are taking courses for the purpose of transferring them to another school at a later date. Colleges are motivated to accept these types of students because they benefit the college financially and because these students increase their enrollment without requiring the same level of oversight, such as academic advising.

Non-Degree Seeking Students are subject to little, if any, admissions criteria. There is generally no formal admissions process and no formal entrance requirements. Students fill out a college application and pay the application fee. When registering for courses, they need to meet prerequisite requirements, pay the per-credit-hour tuition, and purchase the required textbooks and materials.

This allows students to select courses from a variety of institutions. Non-Degree Seeking Students can choose courses that fit their learning style, budget and schedule. Both online and local colleges are trying to attract these students. Non-Degree Seeking Students generally are not eligible for financial aid although some colleges such as Granite State College in New Hampshire allow financial aid to qualified students taking only one class per term.

Some four-year colleges limit Non-Degree Seeking Students to eight credit hours per semester to discourage too many students from enrolling in this category. However, credits taken during summer semesters, online colleges and two year colleges usually have no restrictions. Even with these parameters however, students can still profit greatly. If a student needs to increase their academic course load beyond the caps of a particular college, they can still earn other credit independently through affordable examinations such as CLEP or DSST. Students might also apply at a second or third college as a Non-Degree Seeking Student and take additional courses there as well.

Students who lack traditional Entering Freshman admissions criteria may benefit from enrolling as a Non-Degree Seeking Student. They can accumulate college credit and then later apply to their graduating college as a Transfer Student. Traditional Entering Freshman criteria can actually be avoided completely.

Transfer Student

Transfer Students, sometimes referred to as advanced standing, are those who have earned prior college credit and are ready to begin taking courses through the college where they intend to graduate. The admissions process for Transfer Students is often very simple and the typical criteria demanded of an Entering Freshman are not required. The reason colleges allow transfer admissions to be less rigorous is because a student’s previous college credit assures the college that they are capable of handling college level work. Each college defines their own admission standards, but the majority of colleges will require nothing more than an application, application fee and the official transfer of previous college courses.

In order to qualify as a Transfer Student, a student must have earned the college’s minimum number of credit hours. Schools vary, but the range is generally from 9 to 24. An innovative school such as Charter Oak State College requires only 9 credit hours to be considered a Transfer Student. As further examples, Idaho State University requires 14 hours, Portland State University requires 20 hours, and Western Illinois University requires 24 hours. There are some schools, however, that require up to 30 credit hours before the student qualifies as a Transfer Student.

Credits should normally be from one of three sources for easy transferability:

  • On-campus or online courses taken through other regionally-accredited higher education institutions
  • Courses or other training evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE)
  • Tests passed through Credit by Examination services such as CLEP, DSST, ECE, TECEP or AP

Students who find it difficult to meet typical Entering Freshman guidelines may benefit substantially from the option to apply as a Transfer Student. This alternative allows them to independently accumulate credit and prove to a college they are capable of handling college-level courses when they may otherwise lack the standard admission criteria required by a college.

Colleges require a minimum number of college credits for a student to be considered a Transfer Student. However they also have a maximum number of total credits they will accept as well. This is often referred to as their “residency requirement”. They want to be assured that a student will earn the final portion of their degree from their college courses, either online or on campus. Colleges want a certain amount of oversight of a student’s education before they are comfortable granting them a degree. The amount of credits required by each college varies significantly, but the vast majority allow at least 60 hours of credit to be transferred. Many others will accept 90 hours, while a few colleges accept nearly the entire 120 hours via transfer.

NOTE: Once you enter the college of your choice as a Degree-Seeking Student, you may lose the opportunity to earn college credits from other institutions or through testing. Degree-Seeking Students are often required to seek permission to earn credit elsewhere once they are enrolled. Therefore, students may want to earn all the outside credit they wish to earn, before enrolling, for the most predictable transfer of credit.

Dual Enrolled Student

Dual Enrollment courses are college classes offered to students while still in high school and are quickly growing in popularity. They may be taken on campus or online and students earn simultaneous credit at both the high school and college levels. These are the same courses taken by traditional college-age students, with both levels taking the same class.

In addition to an application and application fee, typical admissions guidelines for the Dual Enrolled Student are for the applicant to be at least sixteen years of age and a junior in high school. However, exceptions are often made. Permission from the high school, or from the parent if the student is homeschooled, is normally required as well, and a high school transcript will also need to be submitted. Some colleges may require ACT or SAT scores as well for admission to a Dual Enrollment class, but many do not. Others may only want to know that you intend to take them.

Each college creates their own admission requirements for Dual Enrolled Students. Colleges wanting to increase their enrollment often have the most flexible admission criteria. Many colleges charge less per credit hour for Dual Enrolled Students as a means to attract them to the campus and hopefully recruit them as a full-time student upon high school graduation. Credits earned from these courses are highly transferable as long as they are taken from a regionally-accredited college or university.

Homeschooled Student

Today, millions of students are homeschooled. These students have gained national respect for their standardized test scores and achievements in everything from spelling bees to college scholarships. Colleges compete for Homeschooled Students and have created special admissions requirements because Entering Freshman criteria often do not fit them appropriately.

The admissions requirements for each college are unique and can be found in their Academic or Undergraduate Catalogs. The vast majority of colleges understand that Homeschooled Students’ academic knowledge cannot be measured as easily as traditionally-educated students. Homeschooled Students can assist the admission process through the following methods.

  • Taking standardized college entrance exams such as ACT or SAT
  • Earning prior college credit through Dual Enrollment or other Non-Degree Seeking courses
  • Earning credit through Credit by Examination services such as CLEP, DSST, ECE, TECEP or AP

These strategies will give the college assurance that the Homeschooled Student will be capable of college-level work. Another option would be to wait until the student earns enough credits to qualify as a Transfer Student in order to make the admission process a great deal easier. This approach will allow their knowledge to be fully recognized by traditional colleges and universities.

Ability to Benefit

Each college has their own definition of which students are allowed to be admitted in this category, but it is generally used for students who are at least 17 years of age and do not have a high school diploma or GED. This admissions category is available at most two-year colleges, but some four-year schools such as Baker College in Michigan offer this admissions option to their students as well. These students are generally required to take the school’s placement test and need to score well enough to assure the college that they can benefit from the courses offered. Students who do not score well enough may be required to take remedial courses. Many students are accepted into college through this admission category and benefit greatly from the opportunity to take college courses.

This category of admissions is a good example of what is changing on college campuses. Typical Entering Freshman criteria are being set aside and more and more and students are being allowed to take college courses – even those students without a high school diploma or GED and without having taken the ACT or SAT. Then, after successfully completing a few courses the need for a diploma, entrance exams and other criteria fall away as they qualify to become a Transfer Student.

Open Enrollment

Open Enrollment is a noncompetitive admission policy which requires a high school diploma or GED as the only criteria for being accepted into a college. Open Enrollment is the standard admission policy for Community Colleges and allows these colleges to admit students smoothly and quickly. Most four-year colleges have selective admissions policies. However, a few four year colleges are embracing the admission policy of Open Enrollment and sometimes refer to it as “right to try” admissions. These colleges only require a high school diploma or GED for enrollment and many offer online courses and online degree programs as well. Some examples of four year colleges that offer Open Enrollment are Bellevue University in Nebraska, Mountain State University in West Virginia, Baker College in Michigan, Wilmington University in Delaware, and Granite State College in New Hampshire.

No Enrollment

There is a significant trend in higher education that allows students to completely bypass all admission requirements for Non-Degree Seeking Students taking online, self-paced courses. Some colleges believe there really is no compelling reason to run a student through an approval process when they have no presence on campus and are not currently seeking a degree from the institution. Students go to the college websites and register for the courses they want. Then they pay the tuition, purchase textbooks and begin the course, working at their own pace. There are no admission requirements including age. Some young students use these courses to see if they are prepared to handle college level work. Some examples of colleges offering online courses with no requirement to enroll include Louisiana State University, Brigham Young University, Portland State University, University of Oklahoma, and the University of Idaho. Credit hours earned can easily be transferred later since they are regionally accredited.

Community College Enrollment

Two-year schools have less competitive admission criteria than four-year institutions. This is because they have a different mission. They receive more tax support than most four-year schools, which keeps their tuition very low and they are in existence to make sure students in their geographic area have a chance to attend college. They also offer remedial courses to help students, who may have struggled in high school, be brought up to a regular college freshman level so they can continue their education.

Other than local students taking courses simply for enjoyment or specific job training, Community Colleges serve two main types of students – those seeking to earn an associates degree who may or may not go on to obtain a bachelors degree at another school, and those simply accumulating various credit hours for the later transfer to a four-year school. Students taking classes at Community Colleges range from the Dual Enrolled high school student, to traditional college age students, to adult learners. Most Community Colleges also offer a broad array of online courses available to anyone although they are sometimes more expensive if you do not live within their district.

Open Enrollment is the admissions policy of most two-year schools. Open Enrollment is a noncompetitive admissions process that only requires a high school diploma or GED for enrollment. Students are accepted into the college as long as there is availability. However, they must take a placement test for the college to appropriately place them in their English and Math courses and decide if remedial courses are needed. Portions of the placement tests can be waived if a student has previously earned college credit for the subjects being tested, either through a course from an accredited school or from other sources such as CLEP, DSST or AP.

Non-Degree Seeking Students are allowed to take courses at two year colleges. They generally are allowed to take up to 18 credit hours per semester. Since they are not regular Degree-Seeking Students, they may not be eligible for financial aid. These students can apply for regular student status at any time, though, and credits earned as a Non-Degree Seeking Student can easily be applied toward a degree or certificate as long as they meet the requirements for that program. These students will still need to take the college’s placement test unless they have already earned college credit in those areas.

Community Colleges accept many students in the Ability to Benefit admission category. These students are generally old enough to have graduated high school but for some reason lack a high school diploma or GED. They are allowed to take college courses as long as they score high enough on the placement test to be placed in courses that are offered at the school. Two-year colleges are very familiar with students needing to enroll in this admission category.

Placement Tests in Community Colleges

Since two-year colleges have Open Enrollment policies they possess very little knowledge of each student’s academic abilities. As a result, they give placement tests to students when they enroll, which guide the college in knowing how to place each student within their course offerings. The two most common placement tests are the ACCUPLACER, which is administered by the College Board who also offers the SAT, AP and CLEP examinations. The other common test is called COMPASS, offered by ACT Educational Services who also administers the ACT college entrance exam. These computerized tests primarily evaluate reading comprehension, writing and math, although they have testing for other subjects as well. Some colleges will also create their own testing for students.

Students can find a great deal of information and practice questions online for both of these tests. Students generally benefit from reviewing the available information before taking the test, because some colleges will not allow a student to retest for a specific period of time if their scores are low. Students may then be required to take remedial courses which will cost them time and money and often do not award college credit.

One way to avoid taking a placement test and risk being placed in a remedial course is to bring official documentation proving that you have already earned college credit in the subjects being tested. Students may want to Dual Enrolled elsewhere and take Math and English courses, or they may want to take the CLEP exams for Math, Analyzing and Interpreting Literature, or Composition before applying to the Community College. Documentation of passing scores from courses like these usually allows students to either skip certain sections of the placement test, or to be exempt from the entire exam. High scores on the SAT or ACT also satisfy the requirements.




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