What are Credit Hours: Definition, Conversion, Graduation Requirement and More

A credit hour is an educational unit representing one hour of class time per week for an entire semester plus the time out of class needed to complete homework and required class projects. Lectures, labs and practice sessions are all considered to be class time and count toward fulfilling the class requirements to receive credit hours.

Given this definition of a credit hour for college, it is the equivalent of a semester hour. University classes range from 1 to 4 credit hours, but most are worth 3 credit hours. Semesters are typically 15 weeks long, so a 3 credit class represents 45 hours of class time plus necessary work done outside class.

A full class load is considered at least 12 credit hours and up to 15. Converting credits to classes, 12 to 15 credits equals 4 to 5 classes. Most bachelor degree programs require 120 credit hours minimum, and full-time students typically complete their bachelor’s degree programs in 4-6 years. There are ways to accelerate earning college credits through popular exam programs like AP and CLEP.

What are Credit Hours (Semester Hours) in College? 

Credit hours are the number of hours the class meets each week – the classes can be lectures, labs or required practice sessions. Credit hours are also called credits or semester hours. And in most cases, one credit hour equals one class hour. While called class hours, the classes are typically 50 or 55 minutes long, not a full hour.

The most typical number of credit hours per semester is 15. 

Credit hours take 4 main forms:

  • Lecture: All students taking a class meet in a large room or auditorium to hear a lecture from the professor. 
  • Section: Section groups complement lectures and are led by teaching assistants or graduate assistants. A section is a smaller group of students in the course that meet to discuss what was covered in recent lectures. 
  • Lab: Labs meet in a laboratory or setting that actively facilitates learning. A lab is designed to put into practical application what is learned in a lecture or other learning format.
  • Practice: Examples of required practice credit hours supervised student teaching, clinical rounds, and practice sessions in music, performing arts or visual arts.

Lectures, sections, labs and practice sessions are sometimes called contact hours. This means that during those times, the student interacts with an instructor in a way that furthers their knowledge or practical experience. The number of credit hours for a course should align with the minimum contact hours to ensure students are receiving all the instruction they are entitled to.

Most colleges and universities expect students to spend two hours, or twice as long, outside of class for each hour in class whether a lecture, lab or section.

Each 3 credit hour course requires:

  • 3 hours per week in class, whether a lecture, section, lab or supervised practice session.
  • 6 hours per week, on average, doing homework, projects and practice outside of scheduled class.

For a 3 credit class, this equals 9 total hours per week and 135 hours during a 15 week semester. A 4 credit class expectations are 4 hours per week in class and 8 hours per week of independent study. This comes to a total of 180 hours for the semester.

Most universities have a set cost per credit hour. Multiply the cost per credit hour by the number of credits the class is worth to determine the cost of the class. Many schools now offer a flat fee (block rate tuition) per semester. In a flat fee system, a student can take additional credit hours at no extra charge. Schools generally require a minimum number of credits (typically  7-17 credits) to receive flat rate tuition. 

What are Quarter Hours in College?

A quarter hour is a credit hour from a university that uses a quarters system rather than semesters. A minority of schools use a quarter system, so the system is not as popular as the semester system.

All schools have a formula for converting quarter hours to semester hours. Because 10 weeks is 2/3s of 15 weeks, the formula most universities use is that 1 quarter hour equals 2/3 semester hour. 

Converting quarters to semesters:

  • 4 credit hours in a quarter system equals 2 2/3 credit hours in a semester system. 
  • 3 quarter credit hours equals 2 semester hours.
  • 2 quarter credit hours equals 1 1/3 semester hours.
  • 1 quarter credit hours equals 2/3 semester hours.

What Are the Different Types of Credits?

There are three types of credits in college – general education credits, elective course credits and major course credits. These college credits classifications are used for students pursuing any type of degree – an associate degree, bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree.

General Education Credits are earned in a broad range of courses, usually during the first two years of college or 100 and 200 level courses. Also called GE courses, courses offering general education credits include English, English composition, math, foreign language, arts & humanities, social science and natural science. Bachelor degree students take up to 60 GE credits at most schools.

Major Courses Credits are credits earned in classes taken to meet requirements for your chosen major. They are often upper level or 300 and 400 level credits. Typically a minimum of 30 major credits are required for a bachelor’s degree. The number varies for associate and master’s degrees.

Elective Courses Credits are credits earned in classes other than classes required to complete general education and major class requirements. The number of elective credits allowed varies from 24 to 30 for a bachelor’s degree depending on the school and your degree program. Most schools have guidelines for what courses can be taken to earn free elective credits.

Each college or university sets its own parameters for how many of each type of credit are allowed or required. 

How to Convert College Credit Hours to Classes

Convert college credit hours to classes by dividing the credit hours by three. This is because most college classes are 3 credit hour classes. 3 credit hours are also referred to as 3 credits.

On average, 1 class = 3 credits. This is the simple calculation formula for converting college credit hours to classes. Credits required to complete a degree divided by 3 equals the number of classes required to reach the credit goal.

Most students take some 1 or 2 credit classes and some 4 credit classes, but the total average is 3 credit hours per class.

Credit hours / CreditsClasses Needed (Approx.)
31 class
62 classes
93 classes
124 classes
155 classes
165 classes
186 classes
207 classes
248 classes
3010 classes
3612 classes
4013 classes
4214 classes
4816 classes
6020 classes
12040 classes
15050 classes

How Many Credits Do You Need to Graduate College?

You need 60 to 120 credits to graduate college depending on the degree you are working to earn.

Bachelor’s degrees are the most common degrees earned. They require a minimum of 120 credit hours within the framework of the degree program.

An associate degree requires 60 credit hours minimum. And to earn a master’s degree usually requires an additional 30-60 credits depending on the degree program.

Degree TypesCredit Hours NeededClasses Needed
Associate Degree6020
Bachelor’s Degree12040
Master’s Degree30 – 6010-20

How Many Credits to Be a Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior in College?

The credit requirement is about 30 credits for each year of college if you wish to keep up with your class.

Taking a minimum of 30 credits as a freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior will keep you on track to graduate in four years with a minimum of 120 credits.

Class Standing Credit Hour Needed
Senior90 or more

How Long Do College Credits Last?

College credits last 7 to 10 years on average from most universities.

This means that they stay valid for that period of time while you complete a degree. If you stop taking classes but return within the timeframe your credits remain valid for, they will still be good. Each school has its own requirements for how long credits last before you must complete a degree or they expire.

Because of ongoing advancements in science and technology, credits in those fields often last less than 10 years and in some cases as little as 5 years after a student stops taking classes. “Due to ever-evolving technological and scientific advances, information learned…more than a decade ago may be rendered obsolete and require students to rebuild a foundation grounded in newer practices before moving forward,” according to National University. 

How Many Credits is Considered Full Time in College?

Taking 12 credits per semester is considered full time by most colleges and universities.

Taking 15-16 credits is the most common for full-time students in an associate degree or bachelor’s degree program. A heavy load of classes is considered anything over 16 credit hours.

The advantages of being a full time student include getting through school more quickly than part-time students. Even taking just 12 credit hours per semester, you can graduate in 4 years if you take spring and summer classes – in other words if you go to school year-round.  

Another advantage of taking at least 12 credits or more each semester is the opportunity to apply for scholarships only available to full-time students. Finally, if your school offers flat rate tuition, you can take more classes for the same amount of money if you are full time.

In order to qualify for financial aid or FAFSA, you must be a half time student, which means taking a minimum of 6 credit hours per semester. Full time students meet this qualification for financial aid.

How Many Credit Hours Per Semester is Too Much?

Taking more than 18 credit hours is considered too much by most universities, though it varies slightly by school. The recommended number of credits taken is 15 or 16 per semester.

Taking 20 credits or more in a semester puts the student at risk of earning lower grades. This is because there is too little time to complete all necessary work and to prepare for quizzes and exams. When several classes in a semester are difficult, then taking less than a maximum of 18 credits may be necessary in order to maintain good grades.

You will have to fill out a course overload or credit hour overload request at most schools if you wish to take more than the recommended number of credits. Most schools cap the maximum number of credit hours at between 20-22. 

Students often take too many credit hours because they wish to graduate in less than 4 years. There are ways to accelerate your education that do not put you at risk of earning bad grades.

What You Can Do to Earn College Credits Fast

You can earn college credits more rapidly in several ways. As you seek to earn credits quickly, consider these opportunities.

AP Classes and Exams: Advanced Placement classes are taken in high school. They prepare students for taking an AP exam in one of 38 subjects once enrolled in college. Passing an AP exam is usually worth 3-6 college credits.

Accelerated College Courses: These courses last 4-8 weeks instead of 15 or 16 weeks but provide the same number of credit hours. This concentrated learning opportunity is ideal for part-time students that can only take one or two classes at a time.

CLEP Exams: The College Level Examination Program provides exams in more than 30 subjects. Passing a CLEP exam allows you to earn credits at about 2,900 colleges and universities. There are more than 2,000 testing centers in the U.S.

DSST Exams: Once available only to military personnel and their families, any student can now take a DANTES Subject Standardized Tests. DSST exams are offered in more than 30 subjects. Each is worth 2.5 credit hours at schools accepting the exam results.

Licenses and Certifications: If you already have a license or certification in a field, some schools will give you credit for it.

TECEP Exams: Similar to CLEP exams, the Thomas Edison Credit-by-Examination Program offers the opportunity for credit through relevant work experience, independent studies and exams in more than 40 subjects. Not all schools accept TECEP exams for credit.

University Challenge Exams: Passing a UCE exam allows you to test out of and receive credit for some prerequisites. Like other exam types, not all schools offer credit for University Challenge Exams.

School-specific Exam Programs: Many universities have their own exam opportunities to receive college credit. Talk to an admissions or academic advisor about opportunities at the schools you are interested in.

Do AP Credits Count as Credit Hours?

AP credits are college credits earned by passing an AP exam, also called an Advanced Placement exam.

Most colleges and universities do accept AP credits as credit hours, though acceptance varies from school to school.

Some schools award credit hours for only certain AP exam credits. Credits accepted are typically for subjects that are not core subjects at the university.

Some schools award credit hours only for high scores on the AP exam – not just a passing score.

Almost all colleges accept AP credits. Only a small number of schools, less than 15 across the U.S., do not apply any AP credit hours.

The amount of AP credits you can use varies widely. There is no standard at schools in the U.S. The range is from 0 (zero) to 30 AP credits accepted. Talk with an admissions counselor at each school you are considering about AP credits, how many you can use and what amount of credit hours you’ll be awarded.

Do CLEP Exams Count for College Credits?

The College Level Examination Program or CLEP are standardized tests administered by the College Board. 

Currently CLEP exams are offered in 34 subjects “that cover introductory level college course material.” Passing each exam is worth 3 or more college credits. CLEP exam credits are accepted at 2,900 U.S. colleges and universities.

The advantages of passing CLEP exams are that the cost is far less than the cost of a college course and you can pass exams and earn credit prior to entering college or during summers off from taking college courses.

What Are Differences Between High School Credits and College Credits?

In high schools that use a credit system, classes are worth either 1 full credit or  ½ credit. And 1 high school class credit equals 3 college credits. Classes worth ½ credit offer the equivalent of 1.5 college credits. 

In total, high schools require 24-28 credits to graduate. Colleges require 120 credits to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. 

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