Full time college students are defined by most colleges and universities as students taking at least 12 credits during the semester. Part time students are those taking 11 credits or less.
The majority of students in 2-year and 4-year programs are full time, especially those starting college for the first time rather than those returning to school or transferring to another school.
Graduation rates are higher for full time students than part time students, and they earn their degree in a shorter period of time. And full time students are eligible to receive full financial aid benefits they qualify for. Part time students must take at least 6 credit hours, considered half time, to receive partial financial aid. There are several types of financial aid qualifying full time and part time students can take advantage of.
College tuition costs are calculated in two different ways. Tuition for part time students is calculated by the cost per credit hour multiplied by the number of hours taken. Some schools use this method for all students, both part time and full time.
At many schools, flat fee tuition is an option for full time students taking a number of credit hours between a minimum and a maximum set by each school.
What Is Full Time in College?
A full time student is one that takes at least 12 credits per semester. This is the standard at all colleges and universities in the U.S.
Because most college classes are worth 3 credits, full time college students typically take 4 classes per semester. However, this is a general rule since classes can be worth anywhere from 1 to 4 credits.
Most students in 2-year and 4-year degree programs take enough credit hours to qualify for full time status when starting their college career. Fewer transfer students take a full time load of classes.
2022-2023 Data from the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, shows:
- First time students in 4-year programs: 86.2% choose full time when starting college for the first time.
- First time students in 2-year programs: 60.8% choose full time when starting college for the first time.
- Transfer students in 4-year programs: 57.6% choose full time status.
- Transfer students in 2-year programs: 32.9% choose full time status.
The benefits of being a full time student start with getting your degree more quickly than you would being a part time student. This means you can get into your preferred career faster too. Statistics show that full time students are more likely to finish college and get a degree. Additionally, more scholarships and financial aid options are available to full time students.
The disadvantages of being full time are that you have less time and flexibility for other pursuits such as a job to earn money or hobbies because classes and schoolwork require more of your time. It requires better time management.
What Is Part Time in College?
A part time college student is one that takes less than 12 credit hours per semester. This standard is consistent for all colleges and universities.
Because most classes are worth 3 credits, a part time college student takes less than 4 classes. However, this varies because classes range in worth from 1-4 credits.
A minority of students choose part time status. Only a majority of transfer students in 2 year programs choose to take classes part time.
NCES data shows:
- First time students in 4-year programs: 13.8% choose part time when starting college for the first time.
- First time students in 2-year programs: 39.2% choose part time when starting college for the first time.
- Transfer students in 4-year programs: 42.4% choose part time status.
- Transfer students in 2-year programs: 67.1% choose part time status.
Part-time is a good choice for students already in a career that want more education. The schedule for part time students is more flexible, allowing more time for other pursuits.
The disadvantages include being less likely to earn a degree and it taking longer to earn it, if you do. Part time students are not eligible for flat rate tuition, which can save students cost per credit hour. And part time college students have fewer financial aid and scholarship opportunities. There is less on-campus housing for part-time students, which also means they have less opportunity to enjoy the full college experience.
What is Half-Time in College
The number of credits to be considered half time enrollment is 6.
The US Department of Education half-time enrollment definition says, “Half-time enrollment is an enrollment status applied to students who are only enrolled in half of the expected full-time course load.”
The Department of Education suggests that colleges and universities define half-time enrollment status as 6 credit hours for the purpose of financial aid. This is the standard for undergraduate students.
Some federal financial aid programs like FSEOG and Direct Loans (Stafford Loans) require students to be enrolled at least half time.
What Are the Differences Between Part Time and Full Time College Students?
There are 10 important differences between part time and full time college students:
- Time Commitment
- Tuition Cost
- Financial Aid
- Period of Time to Graduate
- Graduation Rate
- Retention Rate
- Experience and Immersion
- Campus Housing
- Internship Opportunities
Given these differences between full time and part time college students, general profiles emerge.
Full time students take 12 or more credits per semester and are more academically focused. Many take advantage of FAFSA and receive financial aid. Full time college students spend more hours in class and studying and completing classwork outside of class. Because of their focus, they are more likely to earn a degree, which is their primary purpose for being in school.
Part time students spend less time in class and doing schoolwork outside of class. This gives them more time for other pursuits including holding a job. Earning a degree is less important for part time students – they take classes to gain the information they need with less concern for graduating.
Time Commitment Differences
Full time students have a significantly higher time commitment than part time students.
Full time students take 12-18 credit hours per semester while part time students take 3-11 credit hours per semester. This is the equivalent of taking 3-6 classes per semester as a full time student and 1-4 classes per semester for part time students.
A class’s contact hours is the number of hours per week that the class meets for instruction. For example, a 3 credit class meets 3 times per week. The sessions can be lectures, sections, labs or practice sessions depending on the scope of the class. For most classes, the contact hours are the same as the credit hours.
For each hour a class is in session, a student is expected to work 2 hours per week outside of class on homework and course projects. This means that a 3 credit class requires 9 hours of the students time each week.
So part time students taking 3 to 11 credit hours have a total time commitment of 9 to 33 hours per week. Full time students taking 12-18 credit hours each week have a total time commitment of 36 to 54 hours per week.
Knowing the number of hours required per week in class and outside class allows you to determine your total time commitment per semester. Semesters at most colleges and universities are 15 weeks long. Multiple total hours required per week by 15. Part time students have a total time commitment per semester of 135 hours to 495 hours when taking 3-11 credits. The total time commitment required of a full time student taking 12-18 credits is 540 to 810 hours per semester.
Tuition Cost Differences
The cost of tuition is calculated either by the cost per credit hour times the number of credits a student is taking or by a flat fee tuition system.
Tuition cost for part time students is typically based on the number of credits they take – the cost per credit is multiplied by the number of credit hours they take. Most schools classify part time students as those taking up to 11 credit hours.
Some colleges and universities also base tuition costs for full time students on a per credit hour – the number of credits multiplied by the cost per credit. Most schools classify full time students as those taking at least 12 credits in a semester.
Flat rate tuition cost per semester is becoming more common. Many colleges and universities now offer flat fee pricing per semester for full time students, and a few offer it for part time students taking a sufficient number of credit hours. Flat rate tuition is also called block rate tuition or banded tuition. The minimum number of credit hours required for flat rate tuition cost ranges from 7 to 17, as it varies from school to school. At most schools, flat rate tuition is available to students taking at least 12 credit hours.
Many colleges and universities put a cap on the number of credits that can be taken with flat rate tuition. For example, Wayne State University is typical of most. The university offers flat rate pricing for 12 to 18 credits. If the student takes more than 18 hours, the additional credits are priced per credit hour.
Flat rate or block rate tuition allows most students to reduce the cost per credit hour. The more credit hours per semester, the lower the cost per credit hour.
Financial Aid Differences
The major financial aid difference is that full time students are eligible for more financial assistance than part time students.
Many grant programs, such as the FSEOG (Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant), are available to students who are enrolled at least half-time. Others like the Pell grant are prorated based on earned credits for each semester:
- 3 to 5 credits (part time): 25% of the pell grant
- 6 to 8 credits (part time): 50% of the pell grant
- 9 to 11 credits (part time): 75% of the pell grant
- 12 or more credits (full time): 100% of the pell grant
A range of scholarships for college students are available too for both full time and part time students. However, not all scholarship options are open to part time scholars. Some require that the student applying for them take enough credits to maintain full time student status.
To be eligible for direct loans (Direct Subsidized Loan and Direct Unsubsidized Loan), students need to be enrolled at least half-time.
According to the Digest of Education Statistics from NCES, 69.1% of full time undergraduates received federal aid and only 55.1% of part time undergraduates received federal financial aid in that year. Based on 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study from NCES, full-time undergraduates received an average federal grant of $6,190, in contrast to an average of $3,860 for part-time undergraduates.
Read our ultimate guide on college financial aid for more info.
Differences in Period of Time to Graduate
Full time students take a shorter period of time to graduate compared with part time students.
The data from Complete College America shows, for example, that 31% of first time students who are full time graduate in 4 years, and 46% graduate in 8 years. Only 18% of part time undergraduate students graduate in 8 years.
Graduation Rate Differences
At both 2-year and 4-year institutions, the graduation rate for exclusively full-time students is more than three times the graduation rate for exclusively part-time students, according to the report from Complete College American. And the rate of graduation for full-time students is 1.5 times higher than for students that vary between part time and full time during their education.
This report also points out the specific graduation rate for first-time undergraduates who are at all institutions (2 year and 4 year), which is based on OM survey (2011-2012 Cohort) from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System):
- 46% of full time students graduate in eight years and only 18% of part time students graduate in eight years.
- 44% of full time students graduate in 6 years and only 16% of part time students graduate in 6 years.
- 31% first-time full time students graduate in 4 years, only 12% part time students graduate in 4 years.
Retention Rate Differences
The retention rate in college is the percentage of first-time undergraduate students who return to the same institution the following fall.
The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the retention rate for full time students was 75.6% compared to just 45% for part time students. This means that part time students are more likely to transfer or to not return to school at all.
Experience and Immersion Differences
Compared with part time undergraduates, full time students spend more time in class and on campus, which allows them to enjoy the full college experience. This experience includes studying together with friends, being part of a student club, Greek life, participating in social functions on campus, attending sports and cultural events, and the opportunities for in-depth discussions with professors and instructors.
Another part of the college experience for many students is the immersion experience. Because it is an intensive and time-consuming experience, full time students can take better advantage of immersion than part time students.
Immersion is a concentrated experience in terms of breadth and depth. It is an opportunity to work intensively for a short period of time with an organization or corporation related to your field of study. This experience is learning by doing. It allows you to maximize putting your education into practice while still in school. An immersion experience, “must be of sufficient depth that you become familiar with the culture of the organization/community that you are involved with, and sufficiently broad that you spend time allowing the culture to impact you and inform your world view.”
Based on PowerStats Data (Engagement: Felt Like A Part of Institution Survey) from NCES, 47.3% undergraduates strongly agree that they were engaged and felt like a part of the institution while 34.4% of undergraduates agree with this sentiment.
Campus Housing Differences
Campus housing is an option for full time students at most universities, and it is often referred to as student housing. Most schools require students to be registered for a full load of classes at the beginning of the semester to qualify for on-campus housing. Additionally, many schools require first-year students to live in campus housing.
Campus housing takes many forms including rooms for one to four students, small apartments and married housing for couples and families. The options for housing on campus vary by school.
Part-time students are usually denied on-campus housing, and most live off campus in a private apartment or home.
Employment is much more common for part time students than for full time students. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data on College Enrollment and Work Activity shows that 81% of part time students participated in the workforce. Only 42.4% of full time students were employed.
Full time jobs are more likely to be filled by part time students rather than by full time students. Many part time students have prior to entering or reentering college and are taking classes to further their career opportunities.
Internship Opportunities Differences
More full time students than part time students participate in internship opportunities. These internships are often summer internships, take the place of a semester of school or are part-time internships that the student does while also taking classes.
Part time students may also take advantage of internship opportunities if they do not have a full time job, have not already begun a career or if they wish to switch careers.
Each company that offers internship opportunities sets its own rules for whether it will hire only full time students or also consider part time students for internships.
Who Is Most Likely to Attend College Part Time?
Attending college part time means that you are taking 11 credit hours or less.
Students most likely to attend college part time are:
- Working a part time or full time job.
- Taking classes to gain knowledge beneficial to their current career.
- Going to school part time because they cannot afford full time schooling.
- Unsure of their career direction and are slowly exploring their options.
- Are married and/or are caring for young children.
Is an Accelerated Program a Good Option for Part Time College Students?
Each school determines whether part time students can choose its accelerated program. While some colleges and universities do allow part time students to take accelerated classes, many accelerated programs require full-time commitment to classes and the work required outside of class to complete assignments and projects.
An accelerated program is also a good fit for students who can only go to school part of the year. For example, teachers with summer breaks may enter an accelerated program to complete a degree over the course of several summers while teaching school most of the year.