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Look out! 5 college transfer traps

Transferring colleges doesn't mean you can't complete your degree on schedule. President Obama and Mitt Romney both found success as transfer students. Occidental College student Barack Obama switched his alma mater to Columbia University three years into his degree, graduating right on time a year later. Meanwhile, Stanford student Mitt Romney wrapped up his Brigham Young University degree three years after transferring.

If you're thinking about transferring schools midway to your degree, you're not alone. About a third of college freshmen transfer at least once in the five years after they first enroll, according to a recently released National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) study.

But while some transfer students stay on track to graduation, others lose their way. Transfer students may have difficulty negotiating the bureaucratic process or the transfer may be a result of the decision to switch majors, relocate or take some time off. Here are five common reasons transfer students get stuck as well as tips on how to stay on track.

Avoid these 5 transfer student traps

1. Credit transfer QUICKSAND

Credits are notorious for vanishing in the move from one university to another. Be aware of transfer credit policies at different institutions, and if possible, opt for the school willing to give you the most credit for courses taken elsewhere. The safest passage across credit transfer quicksand is an established college reciprocity or transfer program. For example, many two-year colleges have programs in place to allow for seamless transfer to a four-year bachelor's degree institution, no credits lost.

2. BERMUDA TRIANGLE of remedial coursework

Remedial courses are the "Bermuda Triangle" of higher education, according to Complete College America's 2011 degree completion study. CCA reports that half of all associate degree students and 20 percent of bachelor's degree hopefuls face remedial requirements. Many of these students get stuck in a remedial rut and never progress to credit-bearing courses, leaving graduation as far off as when they started. You can increase your chances of testing out of remedial coursework by spending some time reviewing for placement exams at your school. If you still have remedial requirements to complete when you transfer, look for a institution that incorporates remedial work into regular, credit-bearing undergraduate courses.

3. New school TIME WARP

Transfer students risk losing precious time in the process of applying to a new school, relocating and settling into a new campus. Colleges with transfer student support services can help both smooth the logistics of transferring and connect you with others on your transfer track. Some colleges even have special policies to encourage a streamlined pace to graduation, such as priority course registration. Use these resources to avoid the time sink of administrative red tape and any other potential distractions.

4. FOG of career indecision

The most successful transfer students have a clear reason for switching schools and arrive at the new college with a sense of purpose. If you want to transfer because the grass seems greener at another campus, you may get lost along the way. Transfer because the new school has a stronger program in your chosen major, a degree not available at your current institution or a professor whose academic work you admire. Transfer to a university located in an up-and-coming region for your chosen career and capitalize on the new school's local business connections. The right motivation for transferring can help you stay focused and on track to graduate.

5. Financial aid CRUNCH

How will transferring colleges affect the cost of your education -- and your eligibility for financial aid? Transfer students are at a disadvantage at many universities when it comes to accessing financial aid. A 2010 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that 23 percent of colleges don't offer merit aid for transfer students. Of those that do, the amount set aside for transfers may be lower than for entering freshman, particularly if you transfer in January when the annual funds are depleted.

Avoid the loan and scholarship crunch by seeking transfer-friendly institutions and universities with established 2+2 transfer programs (two years at a community college and two at a university). Timing also matters. Some transfer students apply in the late spring or summer before the fall term, leaving little time to secure funding. If possible, apply early.

Mobility is becoming mainstream, as more and more college students transfer schools, pursue their degree part-time or take advantage of online course delivery. If you plan your transfer right, you can avoid the pitfalls of the transition and find your true alma mater.