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What are Credit Hours? The Building Blocks of Your College Diploma

A person using a laptop to research what credit hours are with floating icons of a book, graduation cap, magnifying glass, person and trophy.

Credit hours are the form of measurement most universities use to indicate how many credits a course is worth, based on the time you will likely spend on the class each week.

When you enroll in a college degree program, you do so in hopes of opening doors to opportunities as you begin or advance your career. You want to cross that finish line sooner rather than later, but you may not realize what's involved to get you to that point.

College degrees are granted when you’ve earned the number of credit hours an institution has designated for that particular program, based on recommendations from an accrediting organization.

So, What are Credit Hours vs. Credits?

According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), most universities in the U.S. award credit by the semester hour. Within those institutions, most courses are worth 3 credits. In creating a credit hour definition, the DOE describes a single semester credit hour as 1 hour per week of class time and 2 hours of student preparation time.

Occasionally, some courses are worth more or fewer credits. For example, a weekly lab accompanying a science course may be worth 1 credit.

Credits by Degree Level

Each degree level requires a specific number of credits to graduate, commonly seen as:

It’s important to note that the credits earned for an associate degree could be transferred into a bachelor’s program; you shouldn’t have to start your 120 credits from the beginning. If you transfer to a college that has instituted a guided pathway for a seamless transition, have a conversation with your admission counselor or academic advisor about your credits.

The university's support team will want to work with you so that most or all of your 60 credits are brought into your bachelor’s program, saving you time and money.

Going to graduate school is different, however. Earning your master’s degree means starting a new program, so you’ll be earning completely different credits than what you completed for your bachelor's work.

How are Credits Distributed Within a Degree Program?

In undergraduate programs, credit hours are oftentimes split into 3 categories: general education requirements, program requirements and free electives.

While general education courses (or “gen eds”) are usually similar across programs within an institution – these include standard English, STEM, humanities and social science classes – the number of free elective credits will differ. This is because program requirements are vastly different across degree programs due to the outcomes they need to meet. More program requirements can mean fewer free electives, and vice versa.

Graduate coursework is different. Because undergraduate work is complete – meaning a student has already attained a well-rounded education – students are able to use this level of education to hone in on a particular interest or career path. All credits in a graduate program are typically just the program requirements.

How Many Credit Hours Do You Need Per Semester?

The number of credit hours you'll need to complete per semester varies by institution, degree level and your personal goals. First, you'll want to consider how much time you can designate to your education and how soon you want to complete your degree. The more time you have and the quicker you want to finish, the more credits you should take per semester or term.

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, 6-8 if you're going to school part time. Other intuitions operate on shorter schedules. For example, online universities may offer six terms per year. In this case, completing six credits or more credits per term indicates that you're a full-time student, and any less is part time.

Financial aid is another variable. If you're receiving financial aid to help you cover the cost of tuition, it may be under the expectation that you complete a certain number of credit hours per semester. Be sure to check your award package or ask an advisor to help you understand your situation.

Semester Hour vs. Quarter Hour

Courses may also be worth a different amount of credits if they're based on a quarter-hour calendar, which isn’t as popular as the semester hour calendar in the U.S. While the type of calendar your school operates on doesn’t matter if you stay at the same school throughout your degree program, it's important to understand the implications if you transfer schools.

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. Colleges use formulas to determine how the credits transfer. Typically, one quarter hour equals 2/3 of a semester hour.

How to Calculate Your Credit Hours

To calculate how many credit hours you have left to complete in your degree, you'll need to compare how many credits are required in your program to the number of credits you've earned. Make sure to account for the specific requirements for your program, too.

You can review your transcripts to see how many credit hours you have earned, but just because you completed a course doesn't necessarily mean you have earned those credits. For instance, most schools have grade requirements that you must meet for a course to be counted.

If you're currently enrolled, your school can confirm how many credits you have earned toward your program, as well as how many credits you have remaining.

Transferring Your Credits

If you're planning on transferring colleges, you'll need to apply to your prospective school and have your transcripts evaluated to see how many credits will be accepted.

You might be surprised to learn how many of your credits can be transferred to some school — even if it's been a while since you earned them. Some schools, such as Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), offer free credit transfer evaluations that allow you to maximize prior learning and give you the credit you deserve. It's as simple as this at SNHU:

  1. Complete the free 5-minute online application. There’s no obligation after filling it out.
  2. Get your transcripts requested – for free. Chat with an admission counselor, and we'll request your transcripts on your behalf.
  3. Receive your free evaluation. Soon after all your transcripts are in, you'll get your official evaluation. It will show you what was transferred in – and what classes you need to complete.

"My first attempt at college was approximately 30 years ago," said Colleen Russell '20. "I was shocked that SNHU accepted so many credits."

Still Have Credit Hour Questions?

If you’re still confused about credit hours and what they mean in terms of your education and career goals, talk to your admission counselor or academic advisor. The support service teams at your university can clarify how many credits you’ve already earned, what courses you should register for to earn credits toward your degree requirements and how many credits you have left to earn.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online program that can best help you meet your goals.

Deidre Ashe '18G is a copywriter in higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.