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    What Are Credit Hours in College?

    By Cece Gilmore

    Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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    Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

    Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: June 4th, 2024
    What Are Credit Hours in College?

    College degrees are awarded to students who have earned a certain number of college credit hours. But exactly what are credit hours and are all colleges the same in how they award them? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about credit hours! 

    What are college credit hours? 

    Every class taken in college is worth a certain number of numerical credits which can be directly translated into “credit hours.” Credit hours can be defined as a form of measurement based on the number of hours per week a student spends in a particular course. They directly impact how long it will take a student to earn a degree and meet a college’s graduation requirements. 

    In this article, we will cover different types of credit hours, how those impact a student’s grade level in college, as well as their progress toward earning a degree. Additionally, Academic terms are divided into either semesters or quarters. There are pros and cons to each system, which we briefly outline toward the end of this article. For a more in-depth look at the advantages and disadvantages of each academic system, read the pros and cons of semesters vs. quarters.

    Related: How many credit hours do you need for financial aid? 

    How many college credits do different college grade levels have? 

    Unlike in high school, your academic standing in college is not solely determined by the number of years you’ve been in school but by the number of college credit hours. For example, a student may be in their second year of college but have enough credit hours to be considered a junior in status. This could lead to perks like getting to register early for popular classes. Below is a general breakdown of how credit hours equate to academic standing. 

    Credit hour requirement Academic standing
    0-30 credit hours Freshman status
    31-60 credit hours Sophomore status
    61-90 credit hours Junior status
    91-120 credit hours Senior status

    Related: How many credits do you need to earn a bachelor’s degree? 

    How many credit hours do you need to graduate? 

    College credit hours also determine the graduation eligibility for a student pursuing a degree. Every university has unique requirements however, the typical amount of semester system credit hours to be able to graduate with a specific degree are listed below. 

    Degree Achievement Credit hours Number of approximate classes required
    Associate’s degree 60 hours 20 classes
    Bachelor’s degree 120 hours 40 classes
    Master’s degree 30-60 hours 10-20 classes

    Also see:  How many credits do you need for an associate’s degree? 

    What are the different types of credit hours? 

    In a typical undergraduate program, credit hours count towards three different categories, which are general requirements, program requirements and electives. 

    General requirements

    General requirements are classes that are typically completed in your first 2 years of undergraduate. These classes are usually introductory courses ranging from math to science to history. Students will typically have to complete 60 credit hours of general requirements for a bachelor’s degree. 

    Major requirements

    Major requirements are classes that are specific to your major. Major requirements are usually around 30 credit hours. 

    Electives

    Even with all your needed general or major requirements completed, you will likely not hit the required 120 credit hour amount needed for a bachelor’s degree. Therefore, you usually will be allowed to take any type of course you want to fulfill your needed hours at your college. Around 30 credit hours are required for electives. 

    You can use your elective space within your course load to pick up a minor

    How do credit hours impact financial aid?

    Federal financial aid eligibility is semi-determined by the amount of credit hours you are enrolled in. For example, only full-time students who are enrolled in at least 12 credit hours are eligible for the maximum Pell Grant amount. However, part-time students who are enrolled in at least 6 credit hours can qualify for a lesser award. 

    In addition, students may only receive federal financial aid for up to 180 hours, which is equivalent to 12 semester terms or six years. Therefore, you should work closely with your academic advisor in college to ensure that you are taking the appropriate number of credit hours to earn your desired degree in the appropriate amount of time so that you don’t lose your federal aid.. This is uncommon as students will typically complete an undergraduate degree in 120 credit hours (or 15 credit hours per semester). 

    Read more: How many credit hours do you need for financial aid? 

    Can credit hours be transferred to another school?

    Yes! College credit hours can be transferred to other colleges to ensure you do not fall behind in your studies. This means that if you have passed a college course at an accredited college you will be able to use transfer credits at a different institution in order to pick up where you left off. There are platforms like Transferology that allow students to know whether or not their courses will transfer to their target school. 

    What is the difference between semester credit and quarter credit systems?

    A majority of colleges utilize the semester system, which means they will be split into a fall and spring semester of around 15 to 16 weeks each. For each semester, it is typical for a full time student to be enrolled in around 12 to 15 credit hours (which is equivalent to about five classes). By the end of the academic year, a student would have earned around 30 total credit hours. 

    Typically, in the semester system the amount of credit hours you take equals the number of hours spent in class each week. A typical semester student will find that the majority of their courses are worth three credit hours (courses with labs are often four credits total) . 

    Pros and cons of a semester credit system

    Pros Cons
    More in-depth teaching is provided due to the longer time spent in the classroom. If a student does poorly in a class, it may be harder to rebound their GPA due to the way credit hours are weighted.
    There is a stronger bond between students and teachers.  If a student wants to switch their major mid-way they have spent a lot of time and money on classes. 
    The classes are shorter in length because they may run more times per week.  You may have to take unnecessary “filler” classes in order to retain full-time status or graduate with a certain degree and credit hours. 
    Longer breaks between semesters allow professors to engage in more time to prepare for the semester.   

    Quarter credit system

    In schools that use the quarter system, the school year is split into four quarters known as fall, winter, spring and summer. Each quarter runs for around 10 weeks. Therefore, the number of contact hours is less for students in a quarter system compared to students in a semester system due to the fewer weeks per quarter. 

    A quarter credit is equivalent to approximately ⅔ of a semester credit since the 10 weeks in a quarter is ⅓ less than the 15 or 16 weeks in a semester. Rather, you could also think of a semester credit as being 1.5 times that of a quarter credit. Therefore, degree completions in a quarter system typically will require more credit hours. 

    For example, a bachelor’s degree would take 120 credit hours in a semester system to complete but 180 credit hours to complete under the quarter credit system. 

    Pros and cons of a quarter credit system

    Pros Cons
    You can participate in more classes each year which allows for more flexibility to try different subjects.  There is a lack of study abroad options for quarter credit systems. 
    There are smaller course loads that can lead to a better focus on each class.  It may be hard to get an internship as many internships align with the semester system. 
    Shorter 10-week long classes can help students so they do not have to endure an uninteresting course or incompatible teaching style for too long.  Midterms and finals happen very quickly due to the shorter length of a quarter. 
    Short breaks between quarters can help students stay in the groove and routine of school.  The classes will be relatively faster-paced and can be difficult for students to keep up. 

    Also read: Semester vs quarter: pros and cons

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Credit hours are a form of measurement colleges use to determine the amount of time a student will be in class each week and ultimately determine how long it will take for a student to earn a degree
    • Credit hours help determine your grade level in college, progress toward degree completion, and can count toward general, major, and elective class requirements
    • Federal financial aid is determined by the amount of credit hours a student is enrolled in, they typically will need to be considered a full-time student or taking at least 12 credit hours 
    • You can obtain college credit hours while still in high school by taking AP, IB, and dual enrollment courses
    • Transferring credit hours to other universities can ensure you do not fall behind or have to retake classes 
    • Semester credit systems are the most common format for credit hours while quarter credit systems are less common 

    Additional resources

    If you are looking to learn more about college credit hours, Scholarships360 has all the resources you need! From learning about what transfer credits are to understanding how many credit hours you need for financial aid to researching scholarships, we have you covered. Best of luck to you and your future endeavors, and make sure that you apply for all the scholarships that you qualify for!

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    Frequently asked questions about credit hours in college

    Do credit hours expire?

    No, college credits do not expire. However, there are a lot of factors that go into how your credit hours will be counted if you have taken a long break from college. Some of these factors include transferring to a different college, whether you changed your major, and many other factors.  

    How many credit hours should I take per semester?

    Typically, you will need to take at least 12 credit hours to qualify as a full-time student. It’s important to note that taking the minimum of 12 credit hours per semester will not be enough to earn a bachelor degree in four years, so most students take more than 12 credit hours per semester.

    How many credit hours is full-time?

    Typically, 12 credit hours will consider a student to be enrolled on a full-time basis.

    Can you earn college credits in high school?

    College credit hours can be obtained in high school, even before attending college. There are many ways to receive college credit in high school, including taking advanced placement (AP) courses, international baccalaureate (IB) courses, and dual enrollment courses.

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