What Are College Credits?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 17, 2021

Learn more about how college credits are measured and ways you may be able to expedite earning your bachelor's degree.

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A college credit is a unit that measures learning at accredited colleges and universities in the US. According to federal guidelines, one college credit hour “reasonably approximates” one hour of classroom learning plus two hours of independent work [1]. That means for the average three-credit course, you can expect to spend around three hours in the classroom and about six hours studying or doing homework each week.  

Over the course of your studies, you’ll likely need to complete a minimum of 60 credits to earn your associate degree or 120 credits to earn your bachelor’s degree, though requirements vary by institution. Many students spend four years working toward their bachelor’s degree, but there are strategies to speed up that timeline. In this article, we’ll look at how college credits are measured and ways you may be able to expedite earning your degree.  

College credits: Key facts 

College credits are an important part of accreditation, or the certification that a US college or university receives when they provide a quality education [2]. Credit hours help clarify what kind of education you earn, making it easier in some cases to transfer credits from one accredited institution to another, and to set a minimum standard for financial aid. 

College credit hours 

College courses range between one and five credits, though most are three or four. The amount of time you meet each week coupled with the amount of work you’re expected to do outside class (that equation mentioned earlier) most often determines how many credits a course is worth. 

Language classes, which rely on an immersion technique and therefore meet more often, may be worth four or five credits for each 15-week semester or 10- to 12-week quarter. Alternatively, a science lab, which is often taken in conjunction with an introductory science lecture and therefore meets less often, may be worth one credit. 

College credits and financial aid

College credits are often used to measure financial aid eligibility. If you anticipate receiving financial aid, you’ll need to make sure you’re enrolled for a set number of courses each semester [3].

Generally, you’ll be eligible for full financial aid if you’re enrolled full time. That aid may be reduced if you drop down to part-time status. Since the requirements differ by college and university, it’s a good idea to ask your school’s financial aid office about their academic progress policy, so you’re aware of any stipulations.

  • Part-time means taking less than 12 credit hours each semester

  • Full-time means taking at least 12 credit hours each semester

Many institutions have started offering a tuition estimator, which determines your tuition and fees based on how many college credit hours you plan on taking in a given semester. If you’d like to know how much you may owe, search for your institution’s name and “tuition estimator” or “tuition calculator.”

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How college credits accrue 

If you’re interested in earning your bachelor’s degree, you will generally need to complete a minimum of 120 credit hours. But graduating isn't quite as simple as taking 120 credits worth of classes. Most college and universities require you to complete credit requirements as follows: 

General education requirements

You’ll typically spend the first two years of your bachelor’s degree taking general education—or core curriculum—courses. Each institution approaches it differently, but you can expect to take a number of required courses in math, science, writing, and the humanities. Up to about half of the 120 credit hours you’ll need to graduate will go toward the gen ed requirement. 

Major requirements

If your institution doesn’t require you to declare a major before starting your undergraduate studies, you can expect to make that decision near the end of your sophomore year. Once you declare your major, you’ll start taking advanced classes in the subject you’ve chosen, which amounts to about a third to half of your credit hours, depending on the department.  

Electives

The rest of your credit requirements will involve taking electives, which provide you with the space to learn about different subjects and try different things. While you should feel free to use your electives to take whatever courses interest you, it can sometimes help to choose complementary subjects to your major. For example, if you’re a biology major who needs to present their findings at conferences, taking an introductory acting class can help you learn how to use your voice more effectively. 

You can also declare a minor or double major to earn a portion of your required bachelor's degree credits in a specific subject area. Learn more about how many credits you need to graduate college.

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How to earn college credits faster

There are a few different ways to fulfill a portion of the general ed credits you need to graduate.

If you’re in high school 

Advanced classes: You can potentially fulfill some general ed requirements if you successfully take Advanced Placement (AP) classes and pass the exam, or take an International Baccalaureate (IB) program and pass either the Higher Level or Standard Level exam. Use The College Board’s AP Credit Search Policy or IB’s blog to see whether your institution accepts passing scores in exchange for credit. 

Dual enrollment: If you're a junior or senior, your high school may offer the chance for you to enroll in local community college classes for credit. Plus, if you successfully pass the course, you may have the option of transferring those credits to your future college.  

CLEP tests: The College Board offers students the opportunity to take exams in 34 introductory subject areas, which may be applied for college credit. These exams cost $84 and not all colleges or universities accept them in exchange for credit—you can double check whether your institution does using the CLEP College Credit Policy Search.

If you’re beginning or enrolled in university 

Early enrollment: Once you’ve been accepted at a college or university, you may be eligible to enroll the summer before the official start of the academic year and take a handful of classes. 

Summer and winter semesters: Students who are enrolled full time are expected to take at least 12 credit hours each fall and spring semester, but you can take advantage of summer semesters and winter semesters—those in-between periods—to take a class or two. Classes held during the summer and winter tend to move faster in order to cover the same amount of material as a full semester; double check whether the accelerated pace fits your schedule.  

Professional experience: If you entered the workforce before earning your bachelor’s degree, you may be able to translate some of that experience into college credit. Check with your academic advisor about whether your school accepts credit for prior learning (CPL) or offers a prior learning assessment (PLA), and how they’re applied to your overall credit hours. 

Turn a certificate into college credit

If you’re looking for flexible online learning options that you can fit around your schedule, entry-level Google and IBM Professional Certificates in Data Analytics, IT Support, Project Management, UX Design, Cybersecurity, and Data Science have been recommended as credit-worthy by the American Council of Education (ACE). If you successfully complete a certificate program with ACE Credit Recommendation, you may be eligible to receive up to 12 college credits from participating colleges and universities in the US, though it depends on your school’s policy.

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How long do college credits last? 

Most college credits don’t expire, exactly. The real question is whether the institution you plan on attending will accept—or transfer in—credits you’ve earned elsewhere. While each institution ultimately decides how many credits to transfer, accredited institutions have an agreement about what credits mean, which can make it easier to transfer credits to a new institution and lessen the amount of time it takes to earn your degree. 

Learn more about how to transfer college credits and shorten the amount of time it takes you to earn your degree. 

Next steps

If you’ve previously earned several college credits and would like to finish your degree, take a look at the University of North Texas’ Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences. You could be eligible to transfer up to 90 credits to put you farther along in your degree program. Choose from eight unique concentrations that will help prepare you for a career in high-demand fields like data analytics, information technology, or media innovation.

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Article sources

1. The Forum on Education Abroad. "Defining the Credit Hour for Title IV Federal Financial Aid Purposes, https://forumea.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/DefiningtheCreditHourforTitleIVFederalFinancialAidPurposesFinal.pdf." Accessed November 11, 2021.

2. US Department of Education. "Accreditation in the United States, https://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation.html#Overview." Accessed November 11, 2021.

3. Federal Student Aid. "Staying Eligible, https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/eligibility/staying-eligible." Accessed November 11, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 17, 2021

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.

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