Many schools allow students to tailor a schedule that aligns with their needs and lifestyle. However, the number of credits you take will determine whether you are enrolled full-time vs part-time. Schools generally have minimum credit amounts in order for students to be considered full- or part-time. In general, undergraduate students who are enrolled in 12 or more credit hours in a semester are considered full-time students.
A student’s status as full- or part-time could impact their financial aid package, academic workload, and the cost of attendance.
Here’s an overview of the key differences between enrolling as a part-time vs full-time student and how they might impact your education.
What is a Full-time Student?
As mentioned, schools set a minimum credit amount for full-time student status. Generally, undergraduate students are considered to be full-time when enrolled in 12 or more credit hours in a given semester. Schools that use a quarter or trimester system may have different credit thresholds to better reflect their typical course load.
For graduate school, students may take as few as nine credits to have full-time status. However, this can vary by institution, so it’s recommended to consult the department’s website or academic advisor.
Full-time enrollment may stipulate that credit-bearing courses qualify as either a major requirement, general education requirement, or eligible elective.
What is a Part-time Student?
Part-time students generally take less credit hours than their full-time peers. Most undergraduate programs define part-time status as taking fewer than 12 credits, though this can differ by institution, especially for graduate schools.
Typical college courses are three to four credits, so part-time students usually take three or fewer classes per semester. Some possible exceptions include half-semester courses or classes with both lecture and lab components.
Enrollment status is considered on a per-semester basis, meaning that students can fluctuate between part-time vs full-time college throughout their studies.
Difference Between Full-time and Part-time Students
On paper, the difference between full-time and part-time enrollment comes down to the number of credits. In practice, enrollment status can impact how students pay for their education.
Whether you study full-time or part-time will affect how much you pay for school. Typically, part-time students pay per credit hour. This allows part-time students to spread out the cost of their education over a longer period of time.
Meanwhile, full-time tuition is capped once a student reaches the credit threshold. Thus, a student may be able to pay the same in tuition for taking anywhere between 12 to 18 credits at the same institution.
Full-time students may be interested in stacking their schedules to reduce education costs. Maximizing credit hours while enrolled full-time can help stay on track or graduate early, but it’s worth noting that taking additional classes above this range can come with separate fees per extra credit hour. A more intensive course schedule could also translate to higher costs for books and materials in a given semester.
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Financial aid is another important consideration when deciding between enrolling as a full-time vs part-time student. For instance, some forms of federal student aid require students to be enrolled at least half-time (six or more credits) to qualify.
Pell Grants, which are awarded based on a student’s financial need, vary according to enrollment status. Full-time students may receive up to $6,495 for the 2021-2022 award year. Awards for part-time students are proportional to the number of credit hours a student takes. For example, a student taking nine credits would be eligible for 75% of the maximum award. Part-time students should keep in mind that eligibility for Pell Grants can’t exceed 12 academic terms.
Both full-time and half-time students can qualify for Federal Direct Loans and the Federal Work-Study program if attending a participating university for the latter. Interested students must indicate that they’d like to be considered for work-study on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
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Since financial aid awards can vary by institution, it may be beneficial to check with your school to determine how enrollment status could impact your overall financial aid package.
Student Loan Repayment
Whether studying part-time or full-time, many students borrow money to pay for education expenses. Most federal student loans do not require repayment while the student is enrolled in school at least half-time. Part-time students have to repay loans once they drop below half-time enrollment.
Borrowers with Direct Subsidized, Direct Unsubsidized, or Federal Family Education Loan, will also have a six-month grace period after graduation before loan payments are due. And if you return to half-time or full-time enrollment prior to the end of the grace period, you will be eligible for the full six-month period upon graduation. Interest on Direct Subsidized loans is covered by the U.S. Department of education while students are enrolled or during certain periods of deferment.
Graduate and professional students with PLUS loans may also receive a six-month deferment on repayment when falling below half-time status.
Borrowers with private student loans and certain federal loans may be expected to begin repayment immediately.
Scholarships can help pay for tuition and related educational expenses. Organizations may use a variety of criteria when awarding scholarships, including academic merit, financial need, quality of application responses, and enrollment status.
Some scholarships have eligibility requirements that require recipients to be full-time students. Still, opportunities exist for part-time students to secure scholarships.
Part-time students attending a SUNY or CUNY community college can apply for the New York State Part-time Scholarship to pay for the lesser of six credit hours or $1,500 per term. To qualify, students must take between six and 11 credits.
There are also scholarships available to help adult learners pay for college who may be studying part-time.
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Tax Credit Eligibility
Enrollment status can have implications for your or your parents’ taxes. There are two main programs—the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC)—that can give tax credits for out-of-pocket education expenses.
The AOTC can provide an annual credit up to $2,500 per student, given they are enrolled at least half-time.
Meanwhile, the LLC is open to all students regardless of enrollment status. The maximum credit per return is 20% of eligible education expenses up to $10,000, or $2,000 total.
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Schedule and Time Commitment
For many, the choice to be a part-time vs full-time student can often come down to scheduling.
As a general rule of thumb, students can expect between two to three hours of work per week for each credit they’re taking. This means that a three-credit course would require approximately six to nine hours of student engagement between class time, homework, readings, and studying.
Many students work while completing their degrees to help pay for education and living expenses. Part-time students also work according to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In October 2020, 41.5% of full-time students had some type of employment while nearly 82% of part-time students were employed.
To make their schedule more feasible, part-time students may consider taking online classes while working to reduce commute times and have access to a wider selection of academic programs.
Taking night classes is another option for students to study while working.
Whether you are enrolled as a full-time vs part-time student could impact your success and experience as a student.
In 2019, the retention rate for part-time students at postsecondary institutions was just 46.5%, compared to 76.1% for full-time students.
Enrollment status could influence aspects of campus life and extracurricular activities as well. For instance, some schools may only allow full-time students to live in student housing on campus.
Student athletes must abide by NCAA regulations, including minimum coursework requirements, to be eligible to play. Division I athletes have to enroll in at least six credits to be eligible for the following term, whereas Division II and III athletes must take nine and 12 credit hours, each.
Going to college is a serious commitment. Finding a schedule that works for your personal and financial needs could make the difference in making it to graduation. Full-time undergraduates generally take a minimum of 12 credits while those opting for part-time take fewer than 12 credits. Some scholarships are only available to full-time students but other forms of aid are open to both full- and part-time students.
Regardless of enrollment status, financial aid and scholarships may not be enough to pay for college outright. To bridge the gap, a private student loan could be a solution. Private student loans do not have the same borrower protections as federal student loans, like income-driven repayment plans, so are generally considered only after all other forms of aid have been exhausted.
SoFi offers no-fee private student loans for students enrolled full or half-time. Repayment plans are flexible, helping students find an option that works for their financial plan and budget.
Photo credit: iStock/Drazen Zigic
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