The US university guide: How does the credit hour system work?

Posted by Rohit Mittal

When arriving to the United States, it is important to understand how the university classes courses you are taking work up to your degree. What system is in place to check how many classes you need in order to finish your degree? This is what credit hours do, and this is how university students keep up with the trajectory of their degree while studying at a university.

If you are a new international student, or simply new to the US university system, it can be a headache trying to understand what is going on in terms of how your coursework fall in line with your degree. You hear tons of people talking about taking a heavy 18 credit hour semester, and some talking about the breeze that the 6 credit hours will be. First of all, you might be thinking, what is a credit hour? This article will try to explain that to you in the most simple way possible. Other questions you might have are: what does a credit hour equal and how will that be calculated to my degree at the end of the semester? How many credit hours do I need to finish my degree and are credit hours the same amount of time as “regular” hours? Have I had any credit hours roll over into this current degree from other work or classes I have taken or do I start at 0 credit hours?

Thankfully, we have the answers for you detailed in this guide. We will start by outlining what a credit hour actually is, how long a credit hour takes in human terms, and what the difference between being enrolled in part time credits and full time credits is.

What is a credit hour?

Essentially, a credit hour is a unit of measurement that indicates how much work you are doing during a semester towards your Bachelor or Masters degree. Students are awarded credit for classes on the basis of the Carnegie unit. This defines a semester unit of credit as equal to a minimum of three hours of work per week for a semester. This is a little confusing so I will break it down for you using a real world example.

Normally, when obtaining a Bachelor’s degree you would have to obtain between a total of 110 and 140 credit hours for the “4 year” span of your degree; if you are doing a Masters, it might be anywhere between 30 and 40 credit hours, depending on the program. (You would complete this in a “1–2 years” time span however).

You might have noticed that I put the amount of years in quotations to suggest flexibility in the term. This is because at the end of the day, completing those credit hours depends entirely on how much workload you want to take on each semester. If you want to finish your degree faster, you are more than welcome to take up the maximum amount of credits possible each semester in order to get through it. If you have run into problems and want to take less credit hours a semester, you can take it slow and do that as well.

What does a credit hour equal? How does the amount of time in class relate to the credit hour?

So every class you take in a semester is matched with the amount of credit hours that will be attributed to your degree. A course is generally measured in terms of number of credit hours based on the amount of time and work you are expected from in that class. Courses range from 1 credit hour to up to 3, 4 or even 5 credit hours. Again, this depends on the school you are studying at and how they have set up credit hours.

However, generally, the credit hour indicates how much time that week you will need to watch lectures for that class combined with how much coursework you will need to do. For instance, a 1-credit class does not require much of your time during the semester. For 1- 2 credit courses, you might be expected to show up to class once a week and do minimal work for the class. As you take higher-level courses, you might see the credit level increasing because the course you take will require more of your time. You may have to spend 3 or 4 hours in lectures a week for 3–4 credit courses, which will mean more time doing projects and work for that class during the week outside of class. You can expect to have to work an extra 6–12 hours outside of class for each of the 3–4 credit hours classes you take. This will depend on each class and the teacher you have but that is generally how it works.

While pursuing an undergraduate degree, you will find courses ranging from 1–4 credits, while when you are in graduate schools pursuing an MS or MBA, a normal course could typically be about 3 to 4 credit hours.

The rule of thumb is that, the amount of credit hours in a class shows how many hours you are expected to watch lectures on the subject that week. This may not always be the case for every school so take that with a grain of salt. I think the best way to look at a credit hour is to think about the “weight” that class will carry in your degree. The less credit hours the class consists of, the less workload and class lecture you will be expected to show at. The more credit hours a class consists of, the more the workload and amount of time watching lectures will be for that class.

The big picture with credit hours

Now that I have explain the connection between coursework hours and credit hours, I want to give you a quick snapshot of the end goal of the credit hour system so you have a better understanding of what all these credit hours add up to.

Normally, 4 year degrees require 120 credit hours, and I will use that number as a basis for this next example.

So, let’s say that in 4 years, you are required to take 120 credit hours in total to complete your degree. Let’s assume you only take classes in the Fall and Spring semesters. If you divide the total amount of credit hours (120) by 8 semesters (2 semesters a year), you would have to take about 15 credit hours a semester in order to finish your degree. If you want to decide to study a couple of summers, you could get through your credit hours faster and reduce your time to complete your degree. In some schools it is obligatory to take some of the credit hours of your degree during the summer to fulfill “summer credit requirements.”

This could then bring the amount of credit hours you need to work a semester during the Fall and Spring down from 15 to whatever number you shaved off from studying in the summers. Sometimes, new incoming students come in with so many credits from having taken dual enrollment or AP classes that they have enough credits that would have taken someone two or three years to obtain. Their 4 year trajectory might be reduced to 2 or 3 years now because of the amount of credits they came in with.

This is why completing your degree can last longer or be shorter than the “Expected” degree completion time.

How do credit hours determine part time and full time student status?

There is an amount of credit hours you must take that is considered full time based on the amount of credit hours you need to complete depending on the trajectory for your “expected” degree completion date. For instance, from the example before, a 120 credit hour degree, would consider full time students as those who take more than 9–12 credits a semester. (This takes into account the summer semesters you would have to take.)

There are caps at the amount of credits you can take! This is done for your health and helps maintain a positive education atmosphere for all students!

For a Masters degree, because they require less credits, typically you would have to take 9 or more credit hours to be considered full time. Remember, this always varies by schools and you must check with student affairs at your school to see what fulltime and part time status consists of.

You must remember that the amount of classes you take does not settle your full time and part time status. It is the amount of credits that determines this. For instance, you can be taking three, 1-credit courses and be considered part time, or be taking three, 4-credit courses to be considered full-time. You always want to be aware of whether you are enrolled at a school part time or full time. I will explain this below.

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Why is knowing how many credits you are taking so important?

Usually, as an international student, you are expected to be enrolled full time to maintain student status during regular school terms like the fall and the spring semesters. So, technically, an international student has to take between about 9 to 12 credit hours, depending on the school, to fulfill their F1 student status. It is almost important to be aware of your full-time status to make sure you stay eligible for scholarships you might have received. Some scholarships require that you be enrolled full-time in order to get the funds promised to you. Federal aid can also take this into consideration and give you only up to a certain amount of loans and aid depending on how much credit you have taken on that semester.

The last thing to remember is that credit hours are used to calculate your GPA. Here, the same principle applies when thinking about the “weight” of the course you have chosen for the semester. For instance, an A in a 1-credit course weighs significantly less towards your GPA, compared to an A in a 4-credit course. You want to be very careful of how you choose your courses when you first arrive at the university to make sure you do not overdo it and overwhelm yourself. It is always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to making decisions about the success of your academic career.

We hope this article has cleared away any doubts about the credit hour system in the United States. Now you will be better prepared to choose the right courses for you in line with your expectations for your degree. If something does not make sense, let us know and we can try help you understand how this all works. Also, you have plenty of resources and academic advisors at the university that you can make the most of to talk you through this process.

If you have had any experiences you want to share about choosing the right courses for your degree depending on the credit hour system, please mention it in the comments below.

Is your academic system different than the one the United States has set up? Let us know your thoughts on the credit hour system and whether you believe it is a good one or not!

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