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What Are Credit Hours and Why Are They Important?

What Are Credit Hours and Why Are They Important?
Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau

Updated April 11, 2022
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
Credit hours is the way to measure your academic progress in college. When you’re enrolled in a college or university, you receive credit hours for the courses you complete successfully.If you’re asking, “What are credit hours?” one thing to keep in mind is that in high school, students go to school every weekday, but in higher education, that’s not the case. Most classes are held twice or three times a week. Then there are labs and fieldwork. The colleges need a way to quantify your participation over the semester.Your status in college–whether you’re a sophomore or a junior, for example–and how you are doing toward completing the right kind of courses for your major can be determined by your credit hours. Your GPA and your financial aid are affected by credit hours.So it’s important to get this right.

What Are Credit Hours?

The colleges keep track of how many classes you’re taking through totalling the number of credit hours.A credit hour is a tool of measurement for the number of hours you spend learning each week of the semester. A single classroom course will typically be three credit hours. Labs, internships, and other types of instruction could be less than three.  One hour sitting in a lecture hall doesn’t mean one credit hour.According to federal education rules, one credit hour amounts to one hour of in-class instruction and two hours of additional student work per week. Most single-semester college courses are worth 3 credits each, which translates to 9 hours of work per week.There are other definitions that come into play here.

Contact Hours

Contact hours are the number of hours you spend in the classroom when a professor is teaching. You need to have a certain number of contact hours  to earn your credit hours.

Semester Hours

Many colleges and universities use the semester system. These schools generally have a fall and spring semester, both of which are around 15 to 16 weeks in length. Students who wish to attend “full time” are often required to enroll in a certain number of credit hours, such as 12 or 15, which corresponds to four or five courses. By school year’s end, most full time students would have earned around 30 total credit hours.

Quarter Credits

Not every college uses a semester system of the same length. Courses may also be worth a different amount of credits if they're based on a quarter-hour calendar. If you move from a college that uses one calendar to a school that uses another, you wouldn't have the same number of total credits, or the same amount of credits assigned to a course.

How to Calculate Credit Hours

What is a credit hour? Now that you know what it is, it’s important to grasp how it is used.The credit hours in college are calculated on the whole semester, which equals 16 weeks at most colleges. The number of credit hours you'll need to complete per semester varies by the type of higher-education institution and your degree level.Some institutions that offer courses by semester require you to take 12 or more credits per semester to be considered a full-time student, or 6 to 8 if you're going to school part-time. Work-study programs can also contribute extra credit hours. Check with your school to find out. 

How Many Credit Hours Do You Need to Graduate? 

Each level of degree requires a specific number of credits in order to graduate. Most colleges and universities follow this standard: A Bachelor’s degree requires 120 semester credits, or 40 classes.

Why Are Credit Hours Important?

You need to understand what role credit hours play in your education–and fully grasp the details–so that you don’t make mistakes that could cost you lost years and money.

To Graduate 

The “minimum” credit hours for each semester might not add up to be enough to get you the diploma.Most colleges define a full-time course load as 12 credits a semester. But Bachelor’s degrees usually require 120 credits. Which means you need 15 credits a semester on average to make it happen in four years.

To Receive a Bachelor’s or Master's Degree

To earn a Bachelor’s degree, you need to complete 120 to 130 credit hours, which usually means 40 classes.Master’s degrees are different. The requirements for a Master’s degree can range from 30 to 60 credit hours, depending on the program and the university.However, the courses and types of learning in Master’s degrees vary. The more advanced the material covered, the more credit hours will be earned for that course. A course requiring more time spent studying can equate to more credit hours earned.

To Transfer

If you decide to earn an associate’s degree at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution, you can usually transfer many of the credits earned for your associate’s degree to your bachelor’s program so you don’t have to start from scratch.Transferring from one four-year college to another can sometimes be tricky. A transfer applicant needs to have a minimum number of completed college credits at the time an application is filed. The number of completed credits can vary from 12 to 60 credits.Some colleges might not accept your credits from your first school on an equivalent level. They quite simply might not see the same class from the two different schools as of the same value. A report from the General Accounting Office showed that  students lost an estimated 43 percent of college credits when they transferred, or an estimated 13 credits, on average. They will have to go longer to graduate or take on huge course loads.

Credit Hours Affect Your GPA

Not all credit hours are considered equal when the colleges calculate your Grade Point Average (GPA). The grade you receive from a course with higher credit hours will influence your GPA more than the grade you receive from a course with lower credit hours.Your GPA can become harder to change over time. One reason is that the more credit hours you’ve completed, the less impact the grade points will have when GPA is calculated.

Credit Hours Impact Tuition Fees

One of the most important ways credit hours impact your education is when it comes to tuition, financial aid, and need-based financial aid.To receive federal student loans, general eligibility requirements are that you have financial need, are a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, and are enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program at your college or career school. You’ll need to complete a FAFSA form to apply.Your ability to receive financial aid and remain eligible for financial aid could depend on you staying within a range of credit hours. Generally, students need to be enrolled in a minimum of 6 credit hours to be eligible for financial aid. But, to be eligible for the full financial aid amount, students could need to be enrolled in 12-credit hours, or be considered full-time students. It’s particularly important to stay on top of credit hours needed to qualify for a Pell grant.You need to check with your college on the minimum credit load rules, and if you are already enrolled, double-check those rules as you go. It will make a difference whether you have private vs. federal loans.Making sure you remain eligible for financial aid is as important as knowing what student loans can used for.

The Takeaway

Credit hours are the measurement tool for classes in college. Understanding credit hours is key to planning your education, making sure you graduate on time, keeping on top of your GPA, and qualifying for financial aid.

3 Student Loan Tips 

  1. Once the pandemic-related pause on federal student loan payments ends, going back to making payments may be hard on budgets. One solution is to refinance to a lower interest rate, longer loan term, or both, depending on your situation. (The tradeoff is that you’ll be forfeiting federal benefits such as repayment programs.)  Find and compare your student loan refinance options.
  2. Paying extra each month on your student loan can reduce the interest you pay and so lower your total loan cost over time. (The law prohibits prepayment penalties on federal or private student loans.)
  3. If you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in a low-income school, you may be eligible for federal student loan forgiveness.

Photo credit: iStock/baonaThe tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.SOLC0122056

Frequently Asked Questions

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About the Author

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau writes about student loans, mortgages, car insurance, medical debt and many other finance topics for Lantern. A veteran of the magazine business, she has edited stories on personal finance for Good Housekeeping and DuJour magazines and has written articles for The Wall Street Journal, Readers' Digest, Parade, Town & Country and Lifetime/A&E, among others. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan.
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