Typically, a bachelor's degree requires 120 college credits—but it's not always that simple. Here's how to parse through credit requirements.
The total number of credit hours you need to graduate college will depend on the degree you are seeking and the specific university you attend. Generally, a bachelor’s degree will require a minimum of 120 credits, an associate degree will require at least 60 credits, and a master’s degree will require anywhere from 30 to 60 credits.
Typically, a school’s accreditation body will determine minimum credit requirements for a degree program. However, individual universities may decide to raise their total credit requirements for some or all degree programs.
Additionally, schools will likely have further requirements regarding credit hours, including number of credits earned through core curriculum, number of credits earned through a declared major curriculum, and number of credits earned “in residence,” or earned at your school as opposed to transferring credits from other universities.
A college credit hour is an estimation of time spent on coursework for a class. One credit hour equates to one hour of instruction per week, plus an expectation of two hours of work outside of class. Many undergraduate college courses are typically three or four credit hours. Credit hours are used both in determining your GPA (along with your final grade) and in determining eligibility for federal financial aid.
The total number of credit hours you take per semester will determine your status as a full-time or part-time student. Generally, taking less than 12 credit hours per semester—typically, less than four classes—qualifies as part-time status, while full-time students will take at least 12 credits—four or more classes—per semester.
Most bachelor’s degree programs require 120 college credits. At a four-year institution granting an average of three credits per class, that’s five classes per semester.
Many institutions require more than 120 credit hours to graduate, with some programs exceeding 140 total credit hours. This difference may be based on the individual degree program. For example, education programs and engineering programs may require additional credits, or it may be due to the way universities assign credits to their courses.
Beyond the total number of credits earned, a bachelor’s degree will likely require a certain number of credits earned in specific areas: core courses—or the general education courses required of all students—and major courses specific to your desired area of study.
Each university can set their own core curriculum credit requirements, so the total number of core credits required will vary. You can anticipate fulfilling up to half of your required credits on core curriculum. (Some states have laws governing the inclusion of specific coursework, and others don’t.) Often, core curriculum will include courses on:
Arts and humanities
Because the core curriculum is required of all students, some institutions expect students to complete these requirements in the first two years, sometimes before declaring a major. This approach helps keep students on track to graduate within the targeted four years, and allows them to explore a range of study topics before committing to one major.
Once you do decide upon a major—often declared during the second year of college—you’ll be able to start working toward your major credit requirements. Requirements vary by school and by department, however, many major requirements will fulfill between one third and one half of your total required credit hours.
Beyond core and major curricula, you can fulfill the rest of your credit requirements by taking elective courses—or courses outside of your core and major requirements that sound interesting to you—or by picking up a double major or minor. A double major means you fulfill all of the major requirements for two majors, while a minor means you’ve completed a shorter series of coursework in a given subject area.
For a complete breakdown of your school’s credit requirements, search “graduation requirements” or “degree requirements” on your university’s website. Beyond core and major credits, you may find requirements such as a minimum grade point average (GPA) or time limitations.
Once you have decided on your major, you can likely locate your major requirements by searching “major requirements” on your department’s website. If you are planning to major in psychology, for example, go to the psychology department’s website and search “major requirements.” There, you should see a list of core and elective courses and credit requirements specific to your major.
Learn more: How to Get a Bachelor's Degree
Associate degree programs commonly require 60 credits—half of the credits required of a bachelor’s degree program—however, some associate degree programs require over 80 credits. Generally, it takes about two years to earn an associate degree on a full-time schedule.
This wide range of total credit requirements is largely attributed to the intention of the program. Liberal arts associate degrees tend to require closer to 60 credit hours. These programs are often used as a vehicle to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program and aim to fulfill many of the general education requirements.
Vocational associate degree programs, however, tend to require a higher number of credit hours as they are designed to lead toward a specific job with no further schooling, such as cosmetologist, dental hygienist, or veterinary assistant.
A master’s degree will generally require anywhere from 30 to 60 credits, but can require even more depending on the specific master’s degree you seek. Along with this variation, master’s degree programs tend to take between one and two years to complete, if you’re attending full-time.
Master’s degree programs often have additional graduation requirements beyond total credit hours. Many require successful completion of a thesis, capstone, or other culminating project.
To determine the total number of credit hours required for your master’s degree, search “graduation requirements” on your program’s website.
Learn more: A Guide to MA vs. MS Degrees
Ready to start earning credits toward your degree? Check out the degree programs available on Coursera and learn at your own pace from anywhere, with course options from top universities.
If you’ve already earned some college credits, you may want to look into the Bachelor of Applied Arts & Sciences from the University of North Texas. You could enter the program with up to 90 transfer credit hours, saving time and money as you pursue your bachelor’s degree.
Learn more: Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for College
There is no set amount of time it will take to complete a bachelor’s degree while attending classes part-time. Generally, it will take more than four years to complete, and it’s good to note that some schools require that students complete their degree within a certain timeframe, such as eight years. You can usually find any time limits listed under a school’s graduation requirements. (College credits generally don’t expire, so if you exceed the time limit or want to attend a new school after partially completing a degree program, you might be able to count your previously earned credits toward a new degree program.)
If you take courses year-round, including during summer and winter sessions, or enter your part-time program with previously earned credits or an associate degree, you may be able to earn your degree in less time.
In a program requiring 120 credits with each class averaging at three credit hours, you’d have to take roughly three extra classes per year to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years.
You may be able to manage those extra classes during the course of a regular semester, or you can consider taking classes during summer or winter sessions. Alternatively, you may be able to earn some credits through exams, such as AP or CLEP, or for professional experience. Your academic advisor should be able to tell you all available options and help you come up with a plan that will work for you.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.