What are Credit Hours in College? (2024)

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What is a College Credit and Credit Hours?

Do you plan to enroll in an academic degree program offered by a college or university? While institutions establish many of their own rules and regulations, some higher education terminology is standardized throughout the nation. Most schools utilize credit hours, for example, making it an important concept for students of all types to understand.

Credit hours are a numerical measurement system used to determine student course loads each semester. They represent a mathematical summarization of all work completed, but are not the same as actual classroom contact or instructional time. Credits are also a convenient numerical way to assess tuition and fee charges. Additionally, institutions utilize credit hours to determine academic standing. When pursuing bachelor’s degrees at the undergraduate level, generally freshmen possess 30 or fewer credits, sophom*ores possess 31 to 60 credits, juniors possess 61 to 90 credits, and seniors possess 91 to 120 credits. Colleges and universities also use credit hours to measure progress towards degree requirement completion and confirmation.

Most higher education institutions utilize a semester credit hour system. These institutions operate on two 15-week semesters per year. While start and end dates can vary, students typically study for a session in the fall and the spring. Generally, classes are three credit hours each, although some may be more or less depending on instructional expectations.

It’s important to realize that not all colleges and universities utilize semester credit hours, however. Some academic institutions operate on quarters instead of semesters. At these schools, those enrolled attend classes over four 10-week sessions per year. As a result, students take less credit hours each quarter.

While both system are valid, it can be somewhat complicated to switch between them. Credit hours must be adjusted accordingly when transferring from semester hour to quarter hour institutions and vice versa.

The terms “credit” and “hour” are essentially interchangeable. In fact, many use them in conjunction with one another when discussing the overall academic worth and/or time commitment associated with college courses. Those enrolled in degree programs can expect to see both terms used often in higher education.

Students may pursue various type of degrees, with many colleges and universities offering options at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. The number of credit hours required to graduate varies by education level. Associate degrees, for example, generally consist of 60 credit hours of coursework, while bachelor’s degrees are comprised of 120 credit hours of coursework. Master’s programs typically require 30 credit hours, although those enrolled must already possess bachelor’s degrees and the classes are much more difficult. The credit hours needed to complete doctoral degrees vary significantly by institution and the field selected, with programs consisting of 60 to 120 credit hours.

As previously mentioned, most college courses are three credit hours each. Some classes are more or less than this, however. Labs, for example, tend to be only one credit hour. Classes that require more extensive instruction, on the other hand, may be four credit hours.

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How are Credit Hours Calculated?

At colleges and universities utilizing the 15-week semester system, one credit hour should amount to one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week. This means that students enrolled in standard three-credit hour courses should expect to spend approximately three hours learning in classrooms and an additional six hours studying, conducting research, and/or completing assignments each week.

Overall, this means that one standard credit hour typically equates to about 45 actual hours of student interaction with the subject matter. A three-credit course, on the other hand, will require an approximate total of 135 actual hours of participation.

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However, that students may spend more or less time studying and completing requirements than is projected. Certain subjects may be easier for some, while others might struggle extensively to meet minimum expectations. As a result, the actual amount of time spent per credit hour will vary by person.

How are Credits Earned?

Students enrolled in academic degree programs earn credits by successfully completing secondary education courses. Passing classes generally indicates an understanding of the information within the education module has been achieved and that all associated learning outcomes have been met.

Notably, students can only earn credits for courses in which they receive passing grades. Most colleges and universities do not award credit for D and F letter grades. This means that those enrolled need to achieve, at minimum, C letter grades in order for the courses to count towards degree requirements. Students will, however, receive the same number of credit hours for receiving C, B, and A letter grades.

How Many Credits Do Students Take Each Year?

Students working towards bachelor’s degrees at colleges and universities with system systems typically enroll in around 15 credit hours per semester, or 30 credit hours per year. This generally allows those enrolled to earn the necessary 120 credit hours for graduation over a four-year period.

While academic institutions tend to recommend 15 credit hours per semester, students may take more or fewer courses as they see fit. Many colleges and universities do put a cap on the number of credit hours that can be taken per semester. In many cases, the maximum amount allowed is 18 to 21. Some schools only allow certain groups, such as honors students, to exceed these limitations.

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Another factor that deserves attention is enrollment status. Colleges and universities often establish tuition and fee rates based on whether students are attending classes full-time or part-time. Taking at least 12 credit hours, or four courses, per semester is generally considered full-time enrollment.

Ultimately, every student must determine for themselves how many credit hours are appropriate. Those contemplating enrollment should always consider the amount of time needed to study prior to selecting classes. As 15 credit hours of courses equates to approximately 45 hours of actual time focusing on academic content per week, the workload can become too demanding if more classes are added. Conversely, those seeking a more challenging academic experience may benefit significantly from additional credit hours.

What is the Difference Between Credited and Non-Credited Course?

Classes taken for credit hours are generally designed for students seeking degrees or certificates. Those enrolled will attend instruction sessions each week, study relevant materials, and complete assignments. At the end of the semester, a letter grade is awarded. Individuals who receive passing grades will then receive college credit that can be applied toward their education objectives.

Some academic courses do not result in credit, however. These are often called non-credit classes and may be taken for personal or professional purposes, or to remedy a lower grade on a standardized test. Students may pursue learning without credit in areas of interest, sometimes for free or at a discounted rate. Institutions may also require incoming students to take lower level non-credit classes when SAT and/or placement test scores fail to meet established minimums. While necessary to continue enrollment, even passing grades for these courses are not applicable to degree requirements.

It's also common for colleges and universities to offer non-credit continuing education (CE) opportunities. CE is regularly required for professional certifications, although individuals may enroll for personal growth as well. These are generally intended for anyone who wants to gain general knowledge, learn new skills, upgrade existing skills, or enrich their understanding about a specific topic. While a certificate of completion or transcript may be awarded upon completion, no credit will be awarded.

Earning Credits Through Testing

Many colleges and universities allow students to gain college credit using credit-by-examination tests. The most prominent examples of this are Advanced Placement (AP), College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), and Defense Subject Standardized Test (DSST) exams. These tests are used to demonstrate prior learning and mastery of standard course outcomes. Students who pass can receive college credit that may be applied toward undergraduate degrees.

The Advanced Placement (AP) program is overseen by the College Board. High school sophom*ores, juniors, and seniors can take any of the 38 different AP classes offered, which are meant to provide an introduction to what college-level learning is like. As the course concludes, students are required to take AP exams in order to pass and obtain college credit. These tests are given in traditional format with paper and pencil, with both multiple-choice and free-response questions.

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) is also managed by the College Board. These standardized multiple-choice tests assess college-level knowledge in 36 subject areas. Those who pass them then receive college credit that is accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities. Notably, CLEPS are offered at a fraction of the price of college courses, potentially saving students hundreds of dollars. These tests are also easily accessible, with over 2,000 administration centers worldwide and a functional remote proctoring system. The exams take 90-120 minutes and students usually receive scores immediately after completion.

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Defense Subject Standardized Test (DSST), formerly DANTES Subject Standardized Tests, are credit-for-examination tests managed by Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Supports (DANTES), a United States Department of Defense initiative. The program consists of 33 exams in college subject areas and is frequently utilized by military personnel and their families. This is a valid option for all students pursuing college degrees in non-traditional formats, however.

It's important to note that not all academic institutions accept AP, CLEP, and/or DSST credit. Colleges and universities establish their own standards regarding credit-by-examination tests, making it essential for students to research guidelines carefully prior to paying for transcripts and/or registering for examinations. Some schools also place a cap on the number of these credits they will accept or refuse to apply the hours altogether.

How Does College Credit Transfers Work?

Some students wish to transfer to other academic institutions after beginning their degrees. To make this process more practical, most colleges and universities allow previously earned credits to transfer, as well. Gaining schools typically assess incoming student transcripts to determine how many hours will be accepted. While not all previous credits may transfer, most colleges and universities take up to 60 or 90 hours.

Credit transfer is most common at the undergraduate levels. Not only can hours be transferred between institutions, but they can also be applied toward subsequent degrees. Associate degree graduates, for example, can submit their transcripts to colleges and universities when enrolling in bachelor’s degree programs. As associate degrees generally consist of 60 credit hours, it’s possible for these students to enter traditional, four-year institutions with a significant head start. In fact, if all credits are accepted in transfer, these students may start as juniors instead of freshmen, with only two more years of classes remaining.

Notably, those interested in transferring credit hours should keep academic accreditation in mind. Most reliable colleges and universities are regionally accredited, but some opt to obtain national accreditation or decide not to become accredited at all. Differences in accreditation can make credit transfer more difficult. As a result, it’s typically easiest to transfer credits earned at institutions that share the same accreditation type.

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What are Credit Hours in College? (2024)


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