What Are Credit Hours In College?

Credit hours are the number of credits you receive for completing a course at the end of the semester. They also generally refer to the number of hours you’ll spend in the classroom – this is also known as “contact hours.”

For example, in an undergraduate setting:

  • If you have a 3-credit English course, you will be in that class 3 hours a week.
  • If you have a 4 credit History course, you will be in that class 4 hours a week.
  • If you have a 3 credit Science course with a 1 credit lab, you will be in the Science course for 3 hours a week and in the lab 1 hour a week.

There are some exceptions to this “rule.” Labs, fieldwork, and internships don’t always transfer 1:1 between credit hours and contact hours.

The number of credits you need per semester depends on whether you’re a part time or full time student, your graduation goals, and your degree level.

Understanding credit hours is essential to graduating college on your own timeline and ensuring you’re taking the right courses for your goals.

This article covers everything you need to know about credit hours so college starts to feel a little less intimidating.

College students in a classroom listening to a teacher lecture

How Many Credit Hours Do You Need To Graduate?

The amount of credit hours you need to graduate depends on the degree you’re pursuing. This table breaks it down clearly:

Degree AchievementCredit Hours Required Number Classes Required (Approx.)
Associate's Degree60 hours20 Classes
Bachelor's Degree120 hours40 Classes
Master's Degree30 - 60 hours10 - 20 Classes (Depending on Program)

Whether you’re attending college as a part time or full time student, the amount of required credit hours remain the same.

If you’re attending college full time, an Associate’s degree should take 2 years, a Bachelor’s 4 years, and a Master’s 2 years to complete.

Part Time vs Full Time Student: How Many Undergraduate Credit Hours Per Year?

The amount of credit hours you should take per semester depends on if you are a part time or full time student and your graduation timeline and goals.

The Difference Between Part Time and Full Time Students

There are differences between part time and full time that students need to understand before they sign up for their classes.

Part time students will find it takes longer to complete their degree compared to full time students. Most schools define “part time” as 11 or fewer credit hours per semester. Some must-know facts about part time vs full time:

  • Students are usually welcome to take as few courses as they’d like.
  • For some state grants and scholarships, part time students will have to take at least 6 credit hours per semester to qualify for the award.
  • Part time students may miss out on some scholarships that require full time status.
  • Taking too long to get a degree can result in some types of credits (such as from STEM-related courses), expiring.

Full time is usually defined as “12 or more credits per semester.”

  • To earn a bachelor’s degree in 4 years, students need to take an average of 15 credits per semester.
  • It is not generally advisable to take more than 18 credits per semester.
  • Scholarships that are for both full time and part time students will usually grant more money to those taking more credits.

Students may be allowed to switch between part time and full time status, but this is not always straightforward. Some 4 year colleges and universities may require you to notify the school before taking fewer or more credits in a semester. Switching from full time to part time may also result in the student losing eligibility on some scholarships and grants.

How Many Undergraduate Credits Should You Take Per Semester?

To graduate within 4 years, full time undergraduate students should aim to take 15 credit hours on average per semester. This chart explains where you should be at every year:

Year in CollegeCredit Hour Requirements
Freshman 0 - 30
Sophomore31 - 60
Junior61 - 90
Senior91 - 120

Part time, however, is more difficult to put into a chart because there is no specific timeline students have to adhere to graduate “on time.” Students are invited to work on their own timelines. 

For example, a student earning their Associate’s with 6 credit hours on average per semester should see their degree in 5 years. For those taking 9 credit hours on average, they may see their Associate’s in 3 and a half years.

Credit Hours Can Often Be Transferred

Transferring schools doesn’t mean you’re out of luck for the credit hours you’ve already earned! Before transferring, you should always talk to your guidance counselor or academic advisor to understand the proper procedures.

Here are three different scenarios where your credit hours can transfer:

1. Transferring Colleges

Transferring colleges mid degree doesn’t mean you necessarily lose out on the credits you have already earned at your first school. If you’ve already received 60 credits at your first school, it is entirely likely your new school will accept those credits.

However, there are restrictions:

  • Not all colleges will accept credit transfers from all other schools. Always reach out to the school you’re considering regarding this transfer before you commit to the switch.
  • Some classes do not have equivalents at the new school and the student may receive elective credit rather than core credits in this case.
  • Lower grades can result in a credit not transferring.
  • If you’re switching from part time to full time and have taken a while with your education, some credits may not transfer if they are old. For instance, some STEM courses may “expire” after 7 to 10 years. This depends on the school.

2. Earning a Bachelor’s After an Associate’s

Luckily, there’s good news if you decide to go earn an Associate’s degree at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year program. You can often transfer the credits earned for your associate’s degree to your bachelor’s program so you don’t have to start from zero. This sets you up as a junior in your new college.

As with transferring colleges, however, you want to be sure the credits will transfer to the 4 year school. If switching from part time to full time you may also run into the issue of credits that have expired. Always talk to your advisor as soon as possible to avoid potential problems.

3. Transferring High School College Credits

Some high schools offer college classes or AP courses. Most colleges will accept these credits towards your degree and it’s a great way to get a head start on your college requirements (and graduate early). AP courses are generally transferred by all colleges in the United States, granted you scored high enough on the exam. College credit courses are usually through the local community college, so as long as the new college accepts credit from that institution the credits will transfer.

Part time and full time students can both benefit from college courses in high school.

Credit hours are central to graduating from college with a degree. They also provide valuable information about your weekly commitments to your courses.

Finding the right balance in credit hours depends on finding the right school for you. College Raptor’s College Match makes locating that college easy! Get started today for free.