College Credit Hours Explained | Everything you Need to Know

When I was getting ready to graduate high school, the concept of credit hours was such a confusing topic. Luckily, after going through five years of school, I’m here to tell you that they’re actually very simple to understand.

What is a college credit hour? College credit hours are a numerical measurement system used by a college to determine the appropriate semester course load of a student, academic standing (freshman – senior), and eligibility for graduation. 1 credit hour typically equals 1 hour in class per week, over a normal 15 week semester.

If you want to learn more about college credit hours, check out the rest of the article below.

How College Credit Hours are Calculated & Determined

How are college credit hours calculated
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In order to determine how many credit hours a course is, you first have to determine how many “contact hours” a student will receive. A contact hour is the measurement of how many total hours a student will be lectured in a classroom or lab during a set term. A college will determine how many contact hours a student will receive during a semester or quarter, and then determine the credit hours of the respective course. For all practical purposes, 1 credit hour is typically equivalent to 15 contact hours.

Colleges that have Semesters (More Common)

The majority of colleges in the USA operate on two 15-week semesters per year; one in the fall and one in the spring. This makes the math extremely simple as credit hours = number of hours spent in class per week. Each course can vary in credit hours, however you’ll find the majority of courses are 3 credit hours each.

When speaking about a 3 credit hour course, you may find that the course meets 3 times a week for 50 minutes, or 2 times a week for 75 minutes. This is typical and is still considered 3 full credit hours. The 30 minute shortage per week is to account for transition between classes for both professors and students.

Scenario: It’s the first semester of your freshmen year and you’ll be taking 12 credit hours. Given what we learned above, 12 credit hours is the same as 180 contact hours (12 credit hours * 15 contact hours per credit hour). Given this is a normal 15 week semester, we can expect that the student will be in class for 12 hours per week (180 contact hours / 15 weeks).

Colleges that have Quarters (Less Common)

Some colleges operate on quarters, or four 10-week quarters per year, aligning to each of the four seasons. In the case of a quarter, you will have to fit the total amount of contact hours into a shorter duration, therefore students will take less credit hours.

Scenario: It’s the first quarter of your freshmen year and you’ll be taking 12 credit hours. As learned above, the 12 credit hours = 180 contact hours (12 credit hours * 15 contact hours per credit hour). Given this is a quarter system, you’ll be spending 10 weeks in order to receive 180 contact hours. You should expect to be spending 18 hours per week in class (180 contact hours / 10 weeks).

How College Credit Hours Work

How do college credit hours work
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Credit hours are typically used in order to determine whether a student is in academic standing of a freshmen, sophomore, junior, or senior. They also determine the graduation eligibility for a student pursuing an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree. Every university has a unique set of requirements, however the typical number of hours for each of these are as seen below:

Academic StandingTypical Credit Hour Requirement
Freshman00 – 30 Credit Hours
Sophomore31 – 60 Credit Hours
Junior61 – 90 Credit Hours
Senior91 – 120 Credit Hours
DegreeTypical Credit Hour Requirement
Associate’s Degree60 Total Credit Hours
Bachelor’s Degree120 Total Credit Hours
Master’s Degree150 – 160 Total Credit Hours (Bachelor’s + 30-40 Hours)

How Many College Credit Hours to Take Per Semester

How many credit hours to take per semester
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The average number of credit hours taken per semester is typically 15 for a bachelor’s degree. This is popular among students as this allows for four years of college at 30 hours per year, allowing for each year to coincide with a new academic standing (Freshman, Sophomore, etc.). This also aligns with 120 hours upon completion of Senior year.

When determining how many credit hours to take, it’s also important to consider the amount of studying required outside of class. The old-school rule is that a student should study two hours a week, outside of class, for each credit hour enrolled. For a student taking 15 credit hours, this indicates they should spend 30 hours studying, or a total of 45 hours per week focusing on class and studies. The amount doesn’t sound too far fetched considering the average American works close to the same. However, this will differ on a week-by-week basis. You may spend 2 hours on a class one week for a quick homework assignment, and 16 hours on it the next week preparing for an exam.

Universities typically put in a cap on the number of credit hours that you can take per semester. The maximum you can usually take is somewhere between 18-20 per semester. This is to ensure that you have appropriate time to study, prioritize, and still have a life outside of class and studying.

Taking 15 hours per semester is the recommended approach, however sometimes it’s easier said than done. Here are a couple reasons why people take more or less than 15 hours per semester:

  • As discussed in the next section, many students from high school will enter college with credit hours. Their decision at this point is either to graduate early, or cut their hours down to a more manageable amount per semester.
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 30 percent of students will end up changing their major when going to college. Often times there are course requirements that do not overlap when a student changes majors. As an example from my past, an engineering student could switch from Engineering to Business after their first year of college. Unfortunately, these are two completely different majors, therefore there was 9 engineering specific credit hours that didn’t overlap/transfer. Therefore, I was required to take an additional 9 credit hours through my college career in business specific courses.
  • A lot of students will want to adjust to life in college slowly, so they’ll only take 9 or 12 credit hours their first semester. This is great, however if a student still wants to graduate with a bachelor’s in four years, it will require them to either take courses over the summer, or require them to take more classes during a semester/quarter.
  • College is hard, and it’s a huge life change for the large majority of folks. The peer pressures of making new friends, being away from family, and other distractions can inevitability end up causing someone to fail a course. It’s okay though, we’ve all been there, but it will require those extra 3 credit hours to be taken in the form of retaking the course.

How Much do Credit Hours Cost

How Much Do College Credits Cost
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The average cost across all private and public colleges is $594 per credit hour. Assuming a 15 credit hour semester, an average semester costs $8,910 just for the classes. For the 120 hours it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree, it averages $71,280. For those who have student loans, this does not include interest.

Tip: Check to see if your college allows for the credit transfer of general prerequisite classes. Many times you can take an online course, not through your university, for a significantly cheaper rate. Upon completion, you just transfer it back to your college and it’s good to go. This was common when I was in college with history classes that everyone was required to take.

College/University TypeAverage Cost per Credit Hour
Overall Average$594
4-Year Public$325
2-Year Public$135
4-Year Private not-for-profit$1,039
2-Year Private not-for-profit$557
4-Year Private for-profit$647
2-Year Private for-profit$523
4-Year for profit College$647
Average cost per credit hour | Source: Student Loan Hero

College Credit Hours and your GPA

College Credit Hours and GPA Calculation
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College credits influence your weighted GPA. In practice, 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. You can calculate your weighted GPA by [(Class #1 Credit Hours * GPA Scale) + (Class #2 Credit Hours * GPA Scale)…. = Total]/Total Credit Hours.

It’s important to note that failing a class will result in not receiving any college credit. A failed class will usually require re-taking the course, if required, in order to receive the credits associated with the course. If you do not drop the course, the failing letter grade will significantly influence your weighted GPA. The more credit hours a course is, the more it will negatively impact your GPA.

Example of Calculating a Weighted GPA

Scenario: A student just finished a semester taking 15 credit hours and has received their final grades after final exams. They were in 5 courses (4,4,3,3,1 credit hours) and received final grades of (A,B+,A-,C,B-), respectively.

  1. Step #1: The student will need to take the credit hours for each course, individually, and multiply it by the GPA scale equivalent of their letter grade. Below the example is a chart of letter grade to GPA scale equivalents.
    • Course #1: (4 Credit Hours) * (4.0 Scale; “A” Grade) = 16.0 Total
    • Course #2: (4 Credit Hours) * (3.3 Scale; “B+” Grade) = 13.2 Total
    • Course #3: (3 Credit Hours) * (3.7 Scale; “A-” Grade) = 11.1 Total
    • Course #4: (3 Credit Hours) * (2.0 Scale; “C” Grade) = 6.0 Total
    • Course #5: (1 Credit Hours) * (2.7 Scale; “B-” Grade) = 2.7 Total
  2. Step #2: Once they receive a total for each class, they then need to add the total up:
    • Total = 16.0 + 13.2 + 11.1 + 6.0 + 2.7 = 49
  3. Step #3: After they receive the total for all courses, they will then need to take the total and divide it by their total credit hours for the semester. This will determine their weighted GPA for the semester.
    • Weighted GPA = 49 Total / 15 Credit Hours = 3.27
  4. Conclusion: Judging by the weighted GPA above, this student performed in the range of a B to B+ student.

GPA Scale to Be Used for Calculating Weighted GPAs

The chart below gives a quick overview of the GPA scale for each letter grade, and the associated percentage ranges. You will find that each college professor will determine grades differently. Some will prefer to go on a +/- system, while others just give letter full letter grades.

Range (+/-)
Range (No +/-)
Letter GradeGPA Scale
(4.0 Max)
97-100A+ 4.0
93 – 9690-100A4.0
90 – 92A-3.7
87 – 89B+3.3
83 – 8680-89B3.0
80 – 82B-2.7
77 – 79C+2.3
73 – 7670-79C2.0
70 – 72C-1.7
67 – 69D+1.3
63 – 6660-69D1.0
60 – 62D-0.7
Below 60Below 60F0.0

How Many Credit Hours for Full-Time vs. Part-time Student

The number of credit hours taken determines the eligibility for being a full-time or part-time student. A full-time student typically takes 12 or more credit hours per semester, and a part-time student is anything less than 12. Additionally, a half-time student is considered someone who takes between 6-12 credit hours.

How Long are College Credit Hours Good For?

College credit hours do not generally expire. However, the important piece to consider is the relevance of those credit hours over time and whether they will transfer to another program. You may have taken some classes in 2010, however those classes in 2020 may not be relevant and contain the same core curriculum as they did 10 years ago. According to a post by franklin university, you can expect that STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) will last for 10 years and graduate courses will last for 7 years.

Earning Credit Hours in High School

Earning College Credits in High School
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How College Credit Hours are Earned in High School

There are a variety of high schools that offer advanced classes in different areas. These classes are intended to prepare you for an AP Exam relevant to that course. AP, standing for Advanced Placement, is an organization that offers 34 courses and exams in different areas. A student would take an AP course and exam with the intent of transferring for college credit. However, you DO NOT have to take the AP course in high school in order to take the AP exam (though it’s highly recommended).

Once you have taken the course in high school, if applicable, you then take the test and are given a score. Every university differs, however the majority of state schools will accept a 3 or better for college credit, while more selective schools will only accept those which are a 4 or a 5. The number of credits that transfer depend varies by university.

AP Exam ScoreMeaningCollege Course Grade Equivalent
5Extremely well qualifiedA+ / A
4Very well qualifiedA- / B+ / B
3QualifiedB- / C+ / C
2Possibly qualified
1No recommendation
AP Exam Scores per AP Students, College Board

the benefits of Earning College Credits in High School

It is significantly cheaper to achieve college credit hour requirements in high school versus receiving them in college. Aside from the potential preparation cost of $50 or less for study material, the actual cost of an AP exam is $93, while the cost of an average credit hour is $594. Given you should expect an average of 3 credit hours from an AP exam transfer, you’re saving $1,600+ for one class.

In addition, this will allow for a student to spend less time in college, with the possibility of early graduation. Early graduation can also reduce the costs of room and board.

Credit Hour Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

FAQ Section
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  • How many credit hours to be a freshman in College? Typically, with a four year bachelor’s degree, a freshman is someone who has 0 – 30 credit hours.
  • How many credit hours to be a sophomore in college? Typically, with a four year bachelor’s degree, a sophomore is someone who has 31 – 60 credit hours.
  • How many credit hours to be a junior in college? Typically, with a four year bachelor’s degree, a junior is someone who has 61 – 90 credit hours.
  • How many credit hours to be a senior in college? Typically, with a four year bachelor’s degree, a senior is someone who has 91 – 120 credit hours.
  • How many credit hours to graduate with an associate’s degree? An associates degree typically requires the successful completion of 60 credit hours.
  • How many credit hours to graduate with a bachelor’s degree? In order to graduate with a bachelor degree, you typically need to successfully complete 120 credit hours.
  • How many credit hours to graduate with a master’s degree? In order to graduate with a master’s degree, you typically need to complete a bachelor’s degree (120 credit hours), and an additional 30-40 credit hours in order to graduate with a master’s (150-160 credit hours total).
  • How many college credit hours per year? A typical student in a four year bachelor’s program will take 30 credit hours per year, or 15 credit hours per semester.
  • How many contact hours is 1 credit hour? One credit hour is typically equivalent to 15 contact hours, and three credit hours is typically equivalent to 45 contact hours. This is the total amount of time spent in official lecture or lab during a specific duration.
  • What is the difference between a credit hour and a unit? The definition of a credit hour is widely universal across colleges, however a unit is dependent on every university or college. There are occasions where credit hours can be used interchangeably with a unit, or the college has a completely different system.

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